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Sundar Pichai faces internal criticism at Google

OAKLAND, Calif .– The seeds of a business downfall, it is often said in the business world, are sown when everything is going well.

It’s hard to say that things are not going so well for Google. Income and profits hit new highs every three months. Google’s parent company Alphabet is worth $ 1.6 trillion. Google has become more and more deeply rooted in the lives of everyday Americans.

But a reluctant class of Google executives are worried the company is showing cracks. They say that Google’s workforce is increasingly outspoken. Staff issues spread to the public. Decisive leadership and big ideas have given way to risk aversion and incrementalism. And some of those executives go off and let everyone know exactly why.

“People keep asking me why I left now? I think the best question is why did I stay so long? Noam Bardin, who joined Google in 2013 when the company acquired the Waze mapping service, wrote in a blog post two weeks after leaving the company in February.

“The challenges of innovation,” he wrote, “will only get worse as risk tolerance declines”.

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

Fifteen current and former Google executives, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of angering Google and Mr Pichai, told the New York Times that Google suffers from many of the pitfalls of a large, mature company – a crippling bureaucracy, a bias. towards inaction and a fixation on public perception.

Executives, some of whom interact with Mr Pichai on a regular basis, said Google failed to respond quickly to major business and staff movements because it brooded over decisions and delayed action. They said Google continued to be rocked by cultural struggles in the workplace and that Mr. Pichai’s attempts to lower the temperature were having the opposite effect – allowing issues to escalate while avoiding positions difficult and sometimes unpopular.

A Google spokesperson said internal polls on Mr. Pichai’s leadership were positive. The company declined to make Mr Pichai, 49, available for comment, but held 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 Mr. Pichai during his 15 years at Google. He left in March. “But am I happy that he makes almost all of his decisions correctly?” Yes.”

Google faces a perilous moment. It fights against regulatory challenges at home and abroad. Politicians on the left and on the right are united in their distrust of the company, making Mr. Pichai a staple of congressional hearings. Even his critics say he has so far managed to navigate those audiences without ruffling lawmakers’ pens or providing more ammunition to enemies of his business.

Google executives who complain about Mr. Pichai’s leadership recognize him and say he is a caring and caring leader. They say Google is more disciplined and organized these days – a bigger and more professional company than the one Mr. Pichai inherited six years ago.

While running Google, he doubled its workforce to around 140,000 people, and Alphabet tripled in value. It’s not uncommon for a company that has grown so big to seem slow or unwilling to risk what made it so rich. Mr. Pichai has taken steps to counter this. In 2019, for example, he revamped Google and created new decision-making bodies, so fewer decisions required his approval.

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

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

In 2015, when Google joined Alphabet, Mr. Pichai took over as CEO of Google. He was promoted again to oversee the parent company when Larry Page, co-founder of Google, stepped down as boss of Alphabet four years later.

In 2018, more than a dozen Google vice presidents attempted to warn Pichai in an email that the company was experiencing significant growth difficulties. They said that there were problems with the coordination of technical decisions and that the comments of the Vice-Chairs were often ignored.

Executives – many of whom had spent more than a decade at the company – wrote that Google was taking too long to make big decisions, making it difficult to accomplish anything, according to five people familiar with the business. -mail. Without directly criticizing Mr. Pichai, they said, the message was clear: Google needed more decisive leadership at the top.

Since then, several of the executives who signed on to the email have quit to take jobs elsewhere. At least 36 Google vice presidents have left the company since last year, according to LinkedIn profiles.

This is a major brain drain from the vice presidents, who total around 400 managers and serve as the backbone of leadership across the company. Google said it was comfortable with its vice president attrition rates, which have remained stable over the past five years.

A common criticism among current and former executives is that Mr. Pichai’s slow deliberations often seem like a way to play it safe and come up with a ‘no’.

Google executives came up with the idea of ​​acquiring Shopify as a way to challenge Amazon in e-commerce a few years ago. Mr Pichai dismissed the idea because he thought Shopify was too expensive, said two people familiar with the discussions.

But these people said they never thought Mr. Pichai had the stomach for a deal and that the price was a practical and ultimately flawed justification. The Shopify share price has increased almost tenfold in the past few years. Jason Post, a spokesperson for Google, said: “There has never been any serious discussion about this acquisition.”

A former executive said the company’s risk aversion was embodied in a state of perpetual research and development known internally as “pantry mode.” Teams will put the products away in case a rival creates something new and Google needs to act quickly.

Mr. Pichai is also known for his slowness with 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 assistant to the company’s legal team.

Ms Prado was at the top of an initial list of candidates provided to Mr Pichai, who asked to see more names, said several people familiar with the research. The exhaustive research took so long, they said, that it has become a common joke among headhunters in the industry.

Mr. Pichai’s reluctance to take decisive action against Google’s volatile workforce has been noticeable.

In December, Timnit Gebru, co-head of Google’s ethical AI team and one of its best-known black employees, said she was fired after criticizing Google’s approach to ‘hired minorities and wrote a research paper highlighting the biases inherent in its artificial intelligence. Technology. Initially, Mr. Pichai stayed out of the fray.

After 2,000 employees signed a petition protesting his dismissal, Mr Pichai sent an email pledging to restore lost trust, while continuing to argue Google’s view that the Dr Gebru was not fired. But that was no excuse, she said, and came across as public relations flattering some employees.

David Baker, former director of engineering at Google’s trust and security group who resigned in protest over Dr Gebru’s dismissal, said Google should admit it made a mistake instead of trying to save the face.

“Google’s lack of courage with its diversity issue is ultimately what evaporated my passion for the job,” said Mr. Baker, who has worked at the company for 16 years. “The more financially secure Google has become, the more risk averse it is.”

Some of Mr. Pichai’s criticisms can be attributed to the challenge of keeping Google’s frank culture among a much larger workforce than it once was, Google executives who were asked by the company to say. talk to the Times.

“I don’t think anyone else can handle these issues as well as Sundar,” said Luiz Barroso, one of the more senior technical executives at the company.

Mr. Pichai has made a point of not acting like a corner office ‘messiah’ – a larger-than-life autocratic boss who is often idealized in the tech industry but can create a toxic workplace, said Aparna Chennapragada, who was vice president of Google before leaving in April to oversee product development on the Robinhood trading app.

Mr. Pichai has also made difficult and unpopular decisions, such as cutting back on “vanity projects” that haven’t done much for the company, Ms. Chennapragada said.

The focus on the leadership team – rather than his ego – led Mr. Pichai to get his deputies to make more decisions without him, Google executives said. But he was notably decisive when it perhaps mattered the most: telling employees to start working from home as the coronavirus pandemic began to spread in the United States.

Discussions to acquire the Fitbit activity tracker, which ended in January, lasted about a year as Pichai grappled with certain aspects of the deal, including how to integrate the company, its product plans and how she intended to protect user data, Sameer Samat said. , vice president of Google. Mr Samat, who was pushing for the deal, said Mr Pichai had identified potential issues that he had not fully addressed.

“I could see how these multiple discussions could make someone feel like we are slow to make decisions,” Samat said. “The reality is, these are really big decisions. “

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