OAKLAND, California – The seed of corporate demise, it is often said in the business world, is planted when things are going well.
It’s hard to argue that things aren’t going well for Google. Revenue and profit are charting new highs every three months. Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is worth $1.6 trillion. Google has become more deeply rooted in the lives of everyday Americans.
Still, a class of Google’s staunch executives worry that the company is fracturing. They say that Google’s workforce is increasingly outspoken. Personnel problems are rampant in the public. Decisive leadership and big ideas have given way to risk aversion and incrementalism. And some executives are leaving and telling everyone exactly why.
“I am constantly asked why am I leaving now? I think the better question is why did I stay so long? ” Noam Bardin, who joined Google in 2013 when the company acquired map service Waze, wrote in a blog post two weeks after leaving the company in February.
“Innovation challenges will only get worse as risk tolerance declines,” he wrote.
Many of Google’s problems, current and recently departed executives say, stem from the leadership style of Sundar Pichai, the company’s likable, low-key executive.
Fifteen current and former Google executives, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of Google and angry Mr Pichai, told The New York Times that Google is suffering from many of the pitfalls of a large company. maturing – a crippled bureaucracy, a bias towards inaction and fixed public perception.
Executives, some of whom have frequent contact with Mr. Pichai, said Google did not move quickly on key business and personnel moves because he rummaged through decisions and delayed action. . They say Google continues to be rocked by workplace culture infighting and that Mr Pichai’s efforts to bring down the temperature have had the opposite effect – complicating matters while avoiding difficult positions. difficult and sometimes unpopular.
A Google spokesperson said internal surveys of Pichai’s leadership were positive. The company declined to make Mr. Pichai, 49, available for comment, but it has arranged interviews with nine current and former executives to offer a different perspective on leadership. your.
“Would I be happier if he made the decision 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 is right in almost all of his decisions? It’s correct.”
Google is facing a dangerous moment. It is fending off regulatory challenges at home and abroad. Left and right politicians both distrust the company, making Mr Pichai a fixture at congressional hearings. Even his critics say he has so far managed to navigate those hearings without ruffling lawmakers or providing more ammunition to his company’s enemies.
Google executives complaining about Mr. Pichai’s leadership acknowledge it and say he is a caring and caring leader. They say Google is more disciplined and organized today – a larger, more professionally run company than the one Mr. Pichai inherited six years ago.
During his time leading Google, it doubled its workforce to about 140,000 people, and Alphabet tripled in value. It is not uncommon for a company that has grown so big to be slow or unwilling to risk what made it rich. Mr. Pichai has taken some steps to combat that. For example, in 2019 he reorganized Google and created new decision-making bodies so that fewer decisions need his signature.
However, Google, founded in 1998, is underpinned by the perception that its best days are behind it. In Silicon Valley, where recruiting and retaining talent acts like a referendum on a company’s prospects, executives at other tech companies say it’s never been easier. It’s easier to convince a Google executive to give up a steady seven-figure salary for a chance elsewhere.
Mr. Pichai, a former McKinsey consultant, joined Google in 2004 and quickly showed a knack for running a company full of big egos and sharp elbows.
In 2015, when Google became part of Alphabet, Pichai took over as chief executive officer of Google. He was promoted again to oversee the parent company just as Larry Page, the co-founder of Google, stepped down as boss of Alphabet four years later.
In 2018, more than a dozen Google vice presidents tried to warn Mr. Pichai in an email that the company was experiencing significant growing difficulties. They say there are problems in coordinating technical decisions and that feedback from vice presidents is often overlooked.
According to 5 people with email knowledge, the executives – many of whom have worked for more than a decade at the company – write that Google has taken too long with big decisions, making it difficult to work. Getting the job done becomes difficult. While they didn’t directly criticize Mr. Pichai, they said the message was clear: Google needs more assertive leadership at the top.
Since then, several executives who signed on to the email have resigned to take jobs elsewhere. According to a profile from LinkedIn, at least 36 Google vice presidents have left the company since last year.
It’s a significant brain drain for vice presidents, who total about 400 managers and serve as a pillar of leadership throughout the company. Google says it’s comfortable with the vice president’s attrition rate, which has been stable over the past five years.
A common criticism among current and former executives is that Mr Pichai’s slow deliberations often look like a way to play it safe and come up with a “no”.
Google executives proposed the idea of acquiring Shopify as a way to challenge Amazon in the online commerce space a few years ago. Mr. Pichai dismissed the idea because he thought Shopify was too expensive, two people familiar with the discussions said.
But those people say they never thought Mr. Pichai got a deal and that the price was a convenient and ultimately misleading justification. Shopify’s stock price has increased nearly 10 times over the past few years. Jason Post, a Google spokesman, said, “There has never been a serious discussion about this acquisition.”
One former executive said the company’s risk-averse relationship is represented by a state of constant research and development internally known as “pantry mode”. Teams will store the product in case the competition comes up with something new and Google needs a quick response.
Mr. Pichai is also known to be slow in making personnel decisions. When Google promoted Kent Walker to senior vice president of global affairs in 2018, the company began looking for a general counsel to replace him. It took more than a year for Google to select Halimah DeLaine Prado, a longtime deputy on the company’s legal team.
Ms. Prado topped the initial list of candidates provided to Mr. Pichai, who asked to see more names, several people familiar with the search said. They say the search took so long that it became a joke among headhunters in the industry.
Mr. Pichai’s reluctance to take decisive measures against Google’s volatile workforce was notable.
In December, Timnit Gebru, co-leader of Google’s Ethical AI team and one of Google’s most prominent Black female employees, said she was fired after criticizing Google’s approach to recruiting minorities and writing a research paper highlighting biases built into their artificial intelligence. Technology. At first, Mr. Pichai stayed out.
After 2,000 employees signed a petition protesting her dismissal, Pichai sent an email pledging to restore lost trust, while continuing to push Google’s position that Dr. Gebru was not fired. However, she said it wasn’t an apology, and came about when public relations officers annoyed some of the staff.
David Baker, the former technical director of Google’s safety and trust team who resigned in protest over the firing of Dr Gebru, says Google should admit it made a mistake instead of trying to salvage it. up appearances.
Mr Baker, who has worked at the company for 16 years, said: “Google’s lack of courage on its diversity issue is ultimately what caused my passion for the work to evaporate.” . “The more financially secure Google becomes, the more risk averse it becomes.”
Some of the criticism towards Mr Pichai could be attributed to the challenge of maintaining Google’s culture of candidness in a much larger workforce than it has been in the past, the Google executive asked by the company said. told The Times.
“I don’t think anyone else can manage these issues as well as Sundar,” said Luiz Barroso, one of the company’s most senior technical directors.
Aparna Chennapragada, who said he shouldn’t act like a “savior” in the office – a bigger-than-life, autocratic, often romanticized tech boss who can create a place malicious work, said Aparna Chennapragada, who was a vice president at Google before leaving in April to oversee product development at trading app Robinhood.
Mr. Pichai also had to go through tough, unpopular decisions, such as cutting back on “frivolous projects” that didn’t bring much benefit to the business, Ms. Chennapragada said.
Google executives say his focus on the management team – rather than his ego – has led Mr Pichai to ask his deputy to make more decisions without him. However, he was the notable decision maker when it was perhaps most important: asking employees to start working from home as the coronavirus pandemic began to spread in the United States.
According to Sameer Samat, discussions to acquire the Fitbit activity tracker ended in January, lasting about a year as Pichai wrestled with aspects of the deal, including how to integrate the company. , product plans and how it intends to protect user data. , vice president of Google. Mr. Samat, who is pushing for the deal, said Mr. Pichai had identified potential issues that he had not fully considered.
“I can see how a lot of those discussions can make someone feel like we are slow to make decisions,” Mr. Samat said. “The reality is these are huge decisions.”