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Managing Friendships with Direct Reports

Ben Legg
Former COO of Google, Europe

Learning outcomes

  • How managers can set expectations whilst also maintaining relationships with direct reports
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Executive Bio

Ben Legg

Former COO of Google, Europe

Ben is an engineer by training and spent over 10 years in the Royal Engineers in the British Army career before moving to McKinsey. In 2002, he moved to Coca-Cola where he ran teams across Eastern Europe before turning around the Indian business leading 12,000 salespeople. Ben then moved to Google where was COO of UK and Ireland for 2 years before being promoted to COO Europe where he was responsible for writing the monetisation blueprint of Google’s various properties. This involved defining the role of ad units, properties, interactions with agencies and partners, and devising how auctions should work. Ben then ran a Yellow Pages turnaround before running an ad-tech business for 6 years which ran $200m of ad spend through the major technology platforms. Ben is the author of Marketing for CEO’s and is on the Board of The Oxford Foundry where he is a mentor and investor to multiple startups. Read more

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Interview Transcript

Managers sometimes struggle with maintaining a friendship, getting on with their direct reports, and being a leader. How do you manage that dynamic?

Good question. It’s a fine line, but it’s a really important line. People need to realise you have high expectations and you’re not going to let them off the hook because you smile a lot. For example, if people miss their goals and there isn’t a good reason, you will cut their bonus. You won’t say, “Ah, never mind, you can still have your full bonus.” If people seriously underperform, you will replace them. If you don’t think they’re fixable. I think knowing there is still a line and you shouldn’t take friendship for granted a really important one.

There’s a carrot and stick in all situations, and people need to know the stick does exist, but there’s also the carrot of regularly calling out people who go above and beyond to do something amazing. Showing appreciation when people do a good job, even if it’s just public praise, or it could be a pay rise, a promotion, or whatever — just setting high standards.

A phrase I used to say a lot was, “Never be satisfied.” Don’t wait until someone else raises the bar, raise the bar on yourself. One of our team is a great artist, and he did this amazing logo on the wall of the boardroom that said, “Never be satisfied.” People started ending emails with, “Never be satisfied.” Anecdotes started getting told, “So-and-so did this, but we think we can do better.” It’s getting people to raise the bar on themselves because it’s just the way we do things around here. There’s a floor, you don’t cross it, the stick exists, but as much as possible, get people to want to show off and have fun by raising the bar on themselves.

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