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Thursday, July 29, 2021

Google executives see cracks in their company’s success

Many of Google’s problems, current and recently departed executives said, stem from the leadership style of Sundar Pichai, the company’s affable, low-key chief executive.

By: New York Times |
Updated: June 22, 2021 10:57:39 am
google, sundar pichai, google executive, google workforce, google update, google news, AlphabetFILE: Sundar Pichai, the chief executive of Google, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 11, 2018. Despite record profits, a number of Google executives are worried that the company is suffering from both its size and leadership from Pichai. (Ting Shen/The New York Times)

Written by Daisuke Wakabayashi

The seeds of a company’s downfall, it is often said in the business world, are sown when everything is going great.

It is hard to argue that things aren’t going great for Google. Revenue and profits are charting new highs every three months. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is worth $1.6 trillion. Google has rooted itself deeper and deeper into the lives of everyday Americans.

But a restive class of Google executives worry that the company is showing cracks. They say Google’s workforce is increasingly outspoken. Personnel problems are spilling into the public. Decisive leadership and big ideas have given way to risk aversion and incrementalism. And some of those executives are leaving and letting everyone know exactly why.

“I keep getting asked why did I leave now? I think the better question is why did I stay for so long?” Noam Bardin, who joined Google in 2013 when the company acquired the mapping service Waze, wrote in a blog post two weeks after leaving the company in February.

“The innovation challenges,” he wrote, “will only get worse as the risk tolerance will go down.”

Many of Google’s problems, current and recently departed executives said, stem from the leadership style of Sundar Pichai, the company’s affable, low-key chief executive.

Fifteen current and former Google executives, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of angering Google and Pichai, told The New York Times that Google was suffering from many of the pitfalls of a large, maturing company — a paralyzing bureaucracy, a bias toward inaction and a fixation on public perception.

The executives, some of whom regularly interacted with Pichai, said Google did not move quickly on key business and personnel moves because he chewed over decisions and delayed action. They said that Google continued to be rocked by workplace culture fights, and that Pichai’s attempts to lower the temperature had the opposite effect — allowing problems to fester while avoiding tough and sometimes unpopular positions.

A Google spokesperson said internal surveys about Pichai’s leadership were positive. The company declined to make Pichai, 49, available for comment, but it arranged interviews with nine current and former executives to offer a different perspective on his leadership.

“Would I be happier if he made decisions faster? Yes,” said Caesar Sengupta, a former vice president who worked closely with Pichai during his 15 years at Google. He left in March. “But am I happy that he gets nearly all of his decisions right? Yes.”

Google is facing a perilous moment. It is fighting regulatory challenges at home and abroad. Politicians on the left and the right are united in their mistrust of the company, making Pichai a fixture at congressional hearings. Even his critics say he has so far managed to navigate those hearings without ruffling the feathers of lawmakers or providing more ammunition to his company’s foes.

The Google executives complaining about Pichai’s leadership acknowledge that, and say he is a thoughtful and caring leader. They say Google is more disciplined and organized these days — a bigger, more professionally run company than the one Pichai inherited six years ago.

During his time leading Google, it has doubled its workforce to about 140,000 people, and Alphabet has tripled in value. It is not unusual for a company that has grown so large to appear sluggish or unwilling to risk what has made it so wealthy. Pichai has taken some steps to counter that. In 2019, for example, he reorganized Google and created new decision-making bodies so fewer decisions needed his signoff.

Yet Google, which was founded in 1998, is dogged by the perception that its best days are behind it. In Silicon Valley, where recruiting and retaining talent serve as a referendum on a company’s prospects, executives at other tech companies said it had never been easier to persuade a Google executive to forgo a stable, seven-figure salary for an opportunity elsewhere.

Pichai, a former McKinsey consultant, joined Google in 2004 and quickly demonstrated a knack for navigating a company teeming with big egos and sharp elbows.

In 2015, when Google became part of Alphabet, Pichai took over as Google’s chief executive. He was promoted again to oversee the parent company as well when Larry Page, a Google co-founder, stepped down as Alphabet’s boss four years later.

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