This case focuses on the managerial and leadership philosophies, policies and behaviors of the leadership triumvirate at Google. Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the founders of Google, along with Eric Schmidt, constitute the leadership triumvirate. Brin is president of technology and assumes responsibility for advertising initiatives. Page is president for products and is acknowledged as the company’s thought leader. Together, Brin and Page provide the engineering, technological, and product development leadership for Google. Eric Schmidt is Google’s chairman and chief executive officer, and he is charged with providing the organizational and operational expertise and leadership for the company.
Triumvirate Leadership at Google
In 1998, while they were doctoral students at Stanford University, Sergey Brin and Larry Page founded Google. In 2001, Brin and Page recruited Eric Schmidt to be Google’s chief executive officer. Schmidt was charged with providing the organizational and operational expertise and leadership for Google, while Brin and Page provided the engineering, technological, and product development leadership. As some pundits have said, Page and Brin knew they weren’t professional managers or marketers or masters of strategy, so they brought in a “grown-up,” Eric Schmidt, to operate the company.
Google’s success can be attributed to its triumvirate leadership of Brin, Page, and Schmidt, “who have managed to beat back rivals from Yahoo! to Microsoft.” However, one of the Google’s biggest mysteries is its leadership triumvirate and how it functions. Page is president for products and is acknowledged as the company’s thought leader and someone who gets involved in projects to make sure things get done. Brin is president of technology and assumes responsibility for advertising initiatives, which is the money-making part of Google.
“Conventional wisdom is that Schmidt’s job is to break ties between Page and Brin and to communicate with Wall Street and the news media. Insiders say that underplays his role. He sets the company’s overall agenda, gives direction on workaday issues the founders don’t care to address, and more than occasionally reminds Page and Brin to behave themselves.” Schmidt is a skilled big-company executive, having had substantial experience at Novell and Sun Microsystems before being recruited to Google. He is a seasoned marketer and a renowned technology expert as well. In April 2007, Schmidt was elected board chairman in addition to being CEO. Google had not had a chairman since it went public in 2004 although Schmidt effectively served in that role. In commenting on the role Schmidt has played in Google’s success, David Nadler, a renowned business consultant, says, “Page and Brin’s handoff to Schmidt can be seen as a classic case of redesigning the management structure to complement the strengths of the top people.”
Nonetheless, Brin and Page seem to be the dominant forces in the company because their stock shares carry ten times as many votes as the ordinary stock shares. Moreover, Brin and Page “give themselves carte blanche to do what they like, buy what they like, diversify wherever they like and pay no dividends.”
The leadership triumvirate also has high expectations for Google employees. Google hires only class-A talent because Brin, Page, and Schmidt believe that hiring just one B-level person initiates a slide into mediocrity. The company has generous reward and award programs in order to ensure that employees with great ideas don’t launch their own entrepreneurial ventures. Moreover, Google essentially lets engineers run the show. Every Google employee divides his or her work time into three parts: 70% is devoted to Google’s core businesses of search and advertising; 20% is targeted toward off-budget projects related to the core businesses; and 10% is allocated to the pursuit of far-out ideas. The time allocation for off-budget projects and far-out ideas is more than a perk; “it’s Google’s seed corn for the future.”
Brin and Page do not see themselves as “infallible seers with a divine right to dictate Google’s next strategy and the one after that.” Instead, they have “created a Darwinian environment in which every idea must compete on its merits, not on the grandeur of its sponsor’s title.” Encouraging creativity and innovation is a Google hallmark, and the company has implemented many policies, processes, and procedures to foster creativity and innovation. For instance, mechanisms are in place to share ideas, get input from peers, recruit people to work on project ideas, and generate support for change. As such, Google is a highly transparent organization for insiders.
But Google is not highly transparent for outsiders! Google seems to relish being secretive and opaque and confusing the competition. Perhaps this is no more apparent than in the leadership triumvirate’s apparently deliberately confusing comments on transparency and corporate strategy. In commenting on the need for transparency in business, Schmidt says, “with all the headlines we’re making, we don’t want our announcements to surprise or confuse anyone. We don’t want our partners to think we’re competing against them.” Schmidt continues, “we try very hard to look like we’re out of control. But in fact the company is very measured. And that’s part of our secret.” Page adds, “[w]e don’t generally talk about strategy ¼ because it’s strategic. I would rather have people think we’re confused than let our competitors know what we’re going to do.” Schmidt also says that he “intentionally propagated the perception of Google as a wacky place to allow the company to build up its business under the radar.”
Along with not being transparent to outsiders, Google has created some disharmony with them. By taking on Microsoft (desktop software), phone companies (a San Francisco wi-fi plan for free wireless Internet service), eBay (classified advertising), and others, Google has not been making friends. Google even seems to be offending its paying customers, and in some “parts of the business community, it is acquiring the image of a somewhat sanctimonious bully.” This is an interesting anomaly; particularly given Google’s famous slogan ¾ Don’t Be Evil ¾ and its pro-consumer stance. Rather than creating disharmony, Google should have been winning friends.
1. In what ways are Brin, Page, and Schmidt leaders?
2. Describe the nature of followership that Brin, Page, and Schmidt have sought to develop at Google.
3. Using the Leadership Grid and its underlying leader behaviors of initiating structure and consideration , explain the leadership orientations of Google’s triumvirate.
4. Use the concepts of transactional, transformational, charismatic, and authentic leaders to describe the leadership of Brin, Page, and Schmidt.