Lessons from my time at Google: Nature, Culture and Leadership

"Do you know if this plant is poison hemlock ?" I asked. I always like to know what the hazards are when I enter a new environment. For example, what can kill me in under half an hour after accidentally ingesting it.  Being from Vermont, I'm cautious around the family of plants that look like carrot tops when I'm in California.

Three faces looked back at me blankly, slightly wide eyed, a fourth almost spoke.

The workshop participants were all Google employees, and we were just outside the building, in the unmanicured area that surrounds their workplace parking lot.

People pause at the word hemlock. Even without googling, they know it as death — and often as the death of Socrates, the  western world's icon of the art of questioning.

"It looks like you have met this plant before," I said, "is that true?".

"Yes." And as he began to speak, I invited him to hold his words — and potential plant identification answer — for a moment.

If you have the time and the intention, it's better to let others discover for themselves the mystery before them, asking open-ended questions to provoke curiosity. This has been proven in the research of brain science and indigenous cultures. The modern world though, has culturally slid to associate learning with memorization or touting information. My journey as a mentor and methodologies in advanced awareness and connection are rooted in indigenous models of learning and systems thinking.

From there I led the participants through a series of questions; exploring, observing, noticing more and more nuances. After 15 minutes of this they were able to discover patches of this plant all over the area in various stages of development. Feathery leaves. Dried stalks from last year. Are there spots on those old stems? The tension mounted as more and more observations were accumulated without a conclusion to the mystery. More learning happened without the conclusion than if the name were confirmed at the very get-go.

What would be the value in the workplace if we allowed each other to sustain not-knowing for periods of time ? What if we extended learning for everyone involved through good questions, curiosity, observations, and pattern recognition? “More resilience on the team”, “Ongoing personal insight” and “Distributed leadership” were some of the inspired responses.

By taking a step back with the whole team, I offered a new way of seeing that takes in the big picture on the landscape. (Keep the workplace analogy in your awareness, as you read.) "Release the immediate mystery and step back with me. Allow your eyes to soften. Do you see any patterns on the landscape that show clues to this plant?" Then, as if by magic, a woman began to see that there were taller versions of this plant tucked in the shade of the shrubbery, not 10 ft away from where we were originally gathered. It seemed obvious, now that we were pausing and reflecting on the whole scene.  

We gathered around this 6 ft version of the plant with stalks that were partially green and had old dried seed heads at the top. Another in the group noted the new details of the seeds. I sprinkled some in my hand and noted that poisonous hemlock comes with a bitter odor, naturally warning the guest. To test this safely I crushed a few of the seeds and smelled them, extending my hand to the others. Smiles grew on everyone's faces as they exclaimed with laughter and wide eyes "Licorice ! Anise !" "Yum that smells so good !" And we all began to gleefully chew on the wild fennel seeds right there on the edge of the Google parking lot where they went to work each day.

Later that morning we were standing on a berm overlooking a wetland stream zone. We were exploring the new habitat with curiosity and a calm openness. People were freely asking each other open-ended questions about what they were seeing at this point in the day. Then one woman said, "I'm trying to tell if that plant is the same as the fennel we were looking at earlier." We began noting from a distance the color, texture and the way it grew in a very large patch. There were lots of questions and great learning was unfolding when I noticed another green feathery plant in the foreground in front of us. "Wait a minute. Look how different those two plants are." I just had to go in for a closer look. I picked my way down the hillside in hops and steps and plunked down in front of the two plants. Sitting on my heels, I got bumped by the enthusiasm of my whole group as they settled down around me.

There was a kind of silent awe as we began drinking in the distinct and haunting differences of this new feathery plant in the damp lowlands. "Look at the stem," I said. "Purple spots," several chimed at once. "What does your intuition tell you about this plant?" I asked evenly. "Bad," "Dangerous," "Not good," they spat out.

Poison Hemlock. This was an extrapolation of knowledge that they did not know, yet they knew from the enhanced learning and mentoring that was going on with the common wild fennel. I affirmed to the group, "Indeed, this is poison hemlock." We were in awe. I was in awe for a whole other reason. I was standing on the berm, in that very spot, the day before, scouting out the parking-lot boundary-lands for potential nature connection activities. And the truth is, I did not see that Poison Hemlock the day before. It wasn't in my awareness as a Vermonter. But because I took the time to invite others into the awareness of keenly observing the world with curiosity and exploration, I was shown by my participants the very hazard I was cautioning against at the beginning of the day. This is what it is to be a connected leader and to foster connection and awareness in the culture of the teams you lead.

There's a saying that goes "Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime." From a systems thinking approach, or indigenous wisdom perspective, the more people know how to fish, the more resilient and collectively wise we are as group. That's a style of leadership I call regenerative mentoring.

Epilogue. At a significant juncture in the day I had everyone review their intention for why they were here. It might be the same or it might have evolved now that the experience was underway and their consciousness was shifting. The one that stood out to me was this, "Originally I thought I was coming here to become a better leader. Now I'm realizing that I'm here to make other people better leaders".   

If this post is meaningful to you please comment below about what your take away is and share with others to pass these insights along !