Carsten Koall/Getty ImagesSummary List Placement
When Larry Page and Sergey Brin stepped away from their day-to-day duties at Alphabet last year, an informal agreement with CEO Sundar Pichai was made: the two billionaire cofounders would make themselves available whenever Pichai called, but they would not initiate contact.
It was an important acknowledgement that Pichai, the understated, 48-year-old engineer who rose through the ranks, was now the sole decision maker at the helm of an internet powerhouse that includes Google, YouTube and Android.
The founders' arrangement also signaled that the grueling task of steering the company through some of the biggest crises in its history was now Pichai's problem.
In October, the US Department of Justice smacked Google with an antitrust lawsuit that strikes at the heart of its most lucrative business: search. The legal fight, which carries the risk of a potential breakup of Google, is unlikely to fade away once Joe Biden becomes President. Nor are the employee uprisings within Google over hot-button issues like doing business with China, the public backlash Google faces over misinformation, or the disruption caused by COVID-19.
Though he has been relatively deserted by Google's founders during the company's most challenging period, close colleagues describe Pichai as "unflappable" and "even-keeled." Few have ever seen him betray any anger or impetuosity, even in heated situations. He is almost universally well liked by employees and executives, and known for his tact and diplomacy.
Those qualities have earned Pichai the trust of Alphabet's founders and the admiration of Wall Street. But if Pichai has risen to the top as the quintessential "steady hand" to keep the Google money machine running smoothly, the pressing question now for many employees and investors is whether a steady hand is enough to get Google through its current challenges.
Privately, some insiders worry Pichai's leadership has so far been one of stewardship, without the bold, blue-sky thinking of the cofounders. His extreme diplomacy keeps the waters calm, but has at times frustrated colleagues hoping for more forceful leadership.
Others however, point to efforts in AI and the cloud as evidence of a transformational strategy underway. And with the company under assault from politicians, regulators and competitors, many view Pichai's calm confidence as an underappreciated asset.
Business Insider spoke to a dozen current and former employees who have worked with Pichai to see how the CEO is approaching the growing list of challenges roughly one year into the job, and to gauge how people inside the company assess his performance.
"It's a very different problem set for a leader at Google today," said Caesar Sengupta, a Google VP who leads Google's work in payments as part of its Next Billion Users program.
Pichai himself declined a request from Business Insider for an interview, but put forward two executives who have worked alongside him, including Sengupta, a Google VP and longtime friend of Pichai's.
Justin Sullivan/Getty ImagesBringing in a "sense of humble normality"
The first thing you hear from Googlers who have worked at the company for a long time is how different the atmosphere is under Pichai.
Only two people have previously held the CEO job: Page, the cofounder, and Eric Schmidt, who was Google CEO from 2001 to 2011. Both were famously strong personalities whose tenures were marked by scandals involving everything from user privacy violations to sexual harassment within the organization.
"After the craziness of the Eric Schmidts and the Larry Pages, there was suddenly this sense of humble normality," said one former executive who worked with both Pichai and the cofounders. "Sundar brought a more balanced point of view."
Page was prone to outbursts and ordering entire projects halted based on small details, such as not liking the way that a promotional email looked, the former executive recalled.
Pichai is no less demanding, but his management style is less confrontational. Insiders say Pichai maintains an almost impressively calm composure in meetings, even in heated discussions, quietly absorbing the conversation around him before weighing in with questions.
"He'll often let others lead the meeting, but he doesn't have a lot of patience," said one executive. "He wants you to keep moving."
Pichai draws on soccer analogies to make a point, and he'll often get up and pace around the room when thinking through a problem. If he gets agitated he'll leave the room rather than break his level-headed demeanor, says another former colleague.
Born in Madurai, India, Pichai joined Google in 2004 and made his mark leading the development of Google Toolbar and Chrome. His pragmatism as both an engineer and manager assured his rise through the ranks. In 2013 Page added the Android business to Pichai's portfolio of responsibilities after longtime Android boss Andy Rubin was sidelined. It was perhaps an early signal that the lieutenant was being tested for the top job.
Two years later, Pichai was running Google.
His calm mundanity extends to his morning routine. Pichai wakes up between 6:30am and 7am, drinks tea, and reads a physical newspaper before work.
Current and former colleagues say he's a voracious reader with an impressive numeric recall. One called him a "news junkie," and three former executives said they would often receive emails from Pichai with links to interesting stories, with a note: "Have you read this?"
"I always thought his news feed must be insane," said one.
Chesnot/Getty ImagesPichai has surrounded himself with a special team of "old timers"
Pichai's cabinet of advisors reflects the mix of collaboration and shrewd pragmatism that has made him an effective leader at a company filled with strong-willed people.
Where Larry Page relied on a small group of trusted advisors called the "L-Team," Pichai has a broader council of confidants named "Google Leads," a group of 15 top executives who oversee all of the company's major product areas and meet with the CEO once a week.
These so-called Leads include Chief Marketing Officer Lorraine Twohill, search lead Prabhakar Raghavan, and the company's chief legal officer, Kent Walker. Most are company veterans who have watched and worked alongside Pichai during his ascension through the company
These "old-timers," said one former Google executive, give Pichai "a wellspring of good faith to fall back on."
Pichai still consults with cofounders Page and Brin, who control a majority of the company's voting power through special shares, and he has been known to hold off on making difficult decisions until he's spoken to the two founders.
People who know Pichai say his management philosophy is all about cross-collaboration and removing organizational barriers that stifle innovation.
When Pichai took over the Android team in 2013, he forced the group — long accustomed to operating as a powerful fiefdom — to make room in its building for the team developing Google Assistant, which was technically part of Google's search business. The virtual assistant is a central feature of Android phones, but until that point, the Android group had resisted close collaboration. When Pichai took over everything changed, said Johnson Hsieh, a former Google employee the Assistant team.
Pichai's corporate re-org earlier this year, in which Prabhakar Raghavan was promoted to lead Google's search business, showed a similar approach.
Notably, the reorg placed ads, Assistant, and Geo teams under Raghavan in a more streamlined structure, with Raghavan reporting directly into Pichai. He also replaced Ben Gomes, who has moved over into a new role overseeing Google's work in education – a role that multiple current and former senior employees said they believe to be a way for Gomes to phase out of the company."He is five years ahead of everyone else when it comes to the bigger picture"
While Larry Page was known for his "moonshot" thinking, Pichai's bets tend to be closer to Earth.
"People forget how big a risk Sundar took in launching Chrome, and even Chromebooks, as well as the early bets he made on AI and Cloud," said Google's Chief Marketing Office Lorraine Twohill. "He is five years ahead of everyone else when it comes to the bigger picture."
If that's true, we're not too far away from seeing if one of Pichai's biggest bets pays off. In 2017, the CEO announced Google was shifting from mobile-first to "AI-first" and has since staked his reputation on the potential of artificial intelligence to not just change the world, but keep Google nimble.
When asked what Pichai's biggest impact on Google might be, Caesar Sengupta pointed to the CEO's priority on AI and the guardrails he has attempted to apply, at least theoretically, to prevent potential abuses down the line.
Pichai has doubled down on hardware and the cloud, markets where Google is leveraging AI to catch its competitors. Thomas Kurian, appointed Google Cloud CEO in early 2019, has made significant strides catching up to Microsoft and Amazon, turning the division into a bright spot for investors. In its most recent quarterly earnings call, Pichai announced plans to make the Cloud business a separate reporting segment.
An AI-first focus may also help Google put its stamp on a $3.6 trillion industry that its founders unsuccessfully tried to crack: healthcare.
Google Health, the company's newest major product area, bears the same name as Page's failed project to create a database for consumers to store their medical data. It was shuttered in 2012 amid low adoption rates.
The "new" Google Health is not just a product but an entire division of the company, consisting of around 600 employees, according to internal documents viewed by Business Insider. The Health group is focused on problems such as helping doctors search medical records and using artificial intelligence to improve cancer care.
Chris Hondros/Getty ImagesWhere will all the moonshots go?
If there's a fear among insiders and observers about these bets Pichai is making, it's that they're not disruptive, or "game-changing," enough.
Those ideas used to be left to Larry Page.
Pichai's becoming Google's CEO in 2015 coincided with Page gaining back his freedom to focus on the company's "other bets" – a term for the company's bigger projects such as self-driving cars and drones.
This made sense: Pichai, the meticulous, exacting "product guy," could focus on running the Google money engine, while Page could turn his full attention to the big-picture bets that could help Google stay true to its unconventional mission.
But being unconventional can be extraordinarily expensive. In the last quarter alone, Alphabet's moonshots incurred a $1.1 billion operating loss on $178 million in revenue.
"Some of these bets were created not because anyone thought we were gonna make gigantic amounts of money, but because Larry or Sergey felt very passionately about something," said one current executive who worked with Pichai and the founders.
Now that Pichai is commanding these bets too, the philosophy appears to be shifting. In an interview with Fortune in January 2020, shortly after his appointment as CEO of Alphabet, Pichai hinted at more restraints on the company's loss-heavy businesses.
"I think with the 'Other Bets' we are definitely at a phase where, while we take a long-term view, we also want to marry that with the discipline of making sure they are doing well," he said.
It was another diplomatic response from the investor-friendly Pichai; one that struck a very different tone from Larry Page, who in a 2013 earnings call told an investor concerned about Google's R&D spending: "I think you should actually be asking me to make more significant investments."
Since Pichai's comments, Alphabet's self-driving division, Waymo, has turned to outside investors for funding. And Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet infrastructure company, abandoned plans to build a $900 million smart city in Toronto, which had faced backlash from residents.
"Sometimes it's easier not to be Google when going after bold ideas, Sidewalk founder Adrian Aoun told The Wall Street Journal earlier this year.
Still, Pichai has been careful to maintain a direct line between the company and its founders' vision by making use of the special agreement they struck.
"Many of the calls between them have been about the bets," said a person familiar with Pichai's ongoing relationship with the founders. "That's something they're more involved with."
Greg Nash-Pool/Getty ImagesThe pros and cons of a Diplomat-in-Chief
The internal culture problems that have rocked Google will be tougher to solve. Last November, Pichai announced the company would scale back its weekly all-hands sessions, known as TGIF (Thank God It's Friday), to once a month with a focus on "product and business strategy."
"It's not working in its current form," Pichai wrote in an email to employees.
Those six words could just as easily describe the current state of Google.
The town halls were once symbolic of Google's idealism, a rough-and-tumble get together over drinks for presentations, Q&As with leadership, and, several insiders say, a few off-color remarks from Brin.
Google used to pride itself on a philosophy of transparency, where employees were empowered to speak their minds. Pichai's management style was forged in this consensus culture, but some insiders believe it's time for him to make a break from it.
In 2018, thousands of Google employees signed a letter protesting Google's involvement in a Pentagon program that used AI to analyze military drone footage. Pichai agonized over the decision for months, insiders say, as some executives, including one who spoke to Business Insider on condition of anonymity, believed turning the company's back on the Defense Department would send a bad message.
"Management became a sitting duck," said the executive. "That's where I think Eric [Schmidt] was a bit clearer. He would say something and the discussion was over."
Google decided to drop the Pentagon contract, but whole debacle showed how Google's feedback-driven culture and the values it preaches — "Don't be evil" — are clashing with its ambitions to get ahead. "Everything has become a debating club," said one employee.
"I think Sundar is very much a product of Google's culture for all its strengths and flaws," said another former colleague who worked closely with him.
But as Google now prepares to go to war with Washington, Pichai may be the diplomat Google needs at the top. Pichai has been largely cooperative with Washington recently, and told employees in a memo that "we look forward to presenting our case" regarding the Justice Department lawsuit.
It will mean tapping into that pragmatism Pichai is so well known for. And perhaps even a few phone calls to Page.
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