Last month, Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, faced criticism over his leadership style in the form of a New York Times piece. The report relies on 15 current and former executives who have expressed discontent over–among other things–the amount of time Pichai takes to make decisions.
According to the Times, employees expressed frustration that “Google did not move quickly on key business and personnel moves because he chewed over decisions and delayed action.” For example, the sources complained that Pichai took a year to fill an important position, even when there were qualified candidates. They also pointed to the fact that Google didn’t buy Shopify as an example of Pichai’s flawed decision-making process.
It’s worth mentioning that had Google (or most accurately, Google’s parent company Alphabet) tried to acquire Shopify, it would have certainly drawn even greater antitrust scrutiny than the company faces already. Never mind that it would have put itself in direct competition with Amazon.
The article points out that the company has lost 36 vice presidents in the past year. That seems bad until you dig a little deeper. And, by dig a little deeper I mean, read the next paragraph, which mentions that Google has 400 VPs. It’s certainly fair to critique leaders at the top of any organization, but that’s hardly a brain drain.
Besides, it isn’t as though Google under Pichai has made a series of missteps or fallen behind. Perhaps it hasn’t moved forward as quickly as some would like, but it’s still one of the most dominant American businesses.
With the exception of what appears to be a rising current of discontent among some employees, the business itself appears to be hitting on all cylinders. That isn’t to say that the discontent itself isn’t an issue, but it’s not a problem with the business model, per se. It’s something entirely different, which we’ll get to in a minute.
Google, meanwhile, is one of the most valuable, most profitable companies on earth. It has billions of users that are generally happy with the services it provides–often for free.
I think you could argue that experience of using Google Search has deteriorated as the company continues to add more advertising, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s the default place people go to answer questions. It’s still the most profitable advertising platform ever built.
There is, however, something striking about the entire story to me. Mr. Pichai did not provide a response for the New York Times piece, which contains the standard “The company declined to make Mr. Pichai, 49, available for comment.” It did, however, make some employees available for interviews.
I read a few dozen follow-up stories that covered the Times report, and I did not find a single story with a quote from Pichai. I even contacted Google, which had nothing to add.
Not to make too much out of the silence, but I actually think it’s a powerful lesson for every leader:
First, when you face criticism, it’s okay to let it go. It’s smart to resist the urge to respond publicly. At a time where it’s not uncommon for people with a platform to use it to undermine their critics, there’s something to be said for saying nothing at all.
There’s something to be said for allowing people to criticize you, even in the New York Times, and letting the opportunity to respond publicly pass you by. That’s especially true when there’s almost nothing to be gained by lashing out other than assuaging a sore ego–something that doesn’t seem to be in character for the famously laid-back Pichai.
Second, when you face criticism internally, ask yourself what you can learn. If the critics are right, then change. If they aren’t, ignore it and continue doing what you think is the right thing for all stakeholders.
Finally, moving slowly and deliberately isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Google isn’t a “move fast and break things” kind of company. It’s one of the largest, most influential companies on earth. It affects the daily lives of billions of people, many of which use its products and services as the primary way they communicate and interact with the world around them.
When you think about it, Google is at a perilous moment with regulators and lawmakers taking aim at its size and business. Having a thoughtful leader who isn’t interested in breaking things is an advantage at a time like this. It’s also a brilliant example of emotional intelligence.