Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, July 25, 2022
by Neil Senturia
Sundar Pichai is the CEO of Google. He recently gave a speech at Stanford, and I want to share a few of his thoughts. Talking about Google 20 years ago, when he joined he said, “It shows the power of a small group of committed people, and not knowing the odds (against) what you are working on.”
The subtext of that sentence is the need for optimism among the troops. Having a mission that the team believes in tends to foster optimism, and in the end, it is the leadership. Now the question is, how do you dial up a healthy dose of optimism, while at the same time being transparent and real to the company?
My experience tells me that optimism as a quality is not a learned skill. It seems to reside in the DNA of the leadership or it doesn’t. By the same token, optimism is not waving-your-arms-change-the-world nonsense. Think Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes. It seems to come from a deep belief in the basic goodness of people and a belief in the unreasonable relentless pursuit of excellence, with an outsized helping of courage. This is Shackleton stuff. And with a nod to pornography, I am not sure I can define optimism, but I know it when I see it.
Another Pichai comment is, “Google has a strong employee voice.” This is critical, and the question is, how do you implement and encourage this? Again, I think it is leadership, in particular, being comfortable with NOT being the smartest guy in the room.
My first company was successful when a junior-level engineer came to my office with a simple thought: “Kill the kiosk, let’s just license the software.” When those moments come, it is imperative to listen, to really stop and consider the employee voice. After all, he is the one in the field who saw it all. Generals send out scouts. When they come back, listen.
Neither optimism nor courage will overcome arrogance and stupidity chasing wealth, armed only with a PowerPoint pitch. Three public companies — Fast; another payments startup Modsy; a design firm and travel startup WanderJaunt — have all closed. Throw in Enjoy Technology and Electric Last Mile Solutions, both recently kaput, and you have enough investor banker hubris to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool. Those ephemeral stock options for the employees can now be used to light the barbecue.
I suspect that when the CEO rang the opening bell, there was a lot of optimism. What might have been missing after the closing dinner was a sense of purpose and mission — beyond just getting rich.
Pichai gave another insightful comment on the role of the CEO: “The easy decisions do not come to you. Your job is to break the tie and unlock the organization.” But Pichai also debunks the “oracle on high” bit. “With time, you realize most of those decisions are inconsequential,” he says. Most perhaps, but not all. Knowing when to not touch something or insert yourself is a critical skill of leadership.
But every once in a while you can change the trajectory of the company and the adventure. It is the moment. As my fishing guide tells me as we approach HPZ (high probability zone) water, “be ready.”
I personally think the one decision that always really matters is hiring. That is the one that companies get wrong more than 50 percent of the time. And this is the classic conundrum: Do you go with the safe hire “been there done that” and pay up, or do you hire the rookie that you sense will turn into Willie Mays? To do that, Pichai sums it up best, “be OK with failure and reward effort, not outcomes.” And I would add, be patient. Talent is not always obvious.
I want to play moneyball, I want to be part of the transformation into greatness from employees who start as assistant waterboys, knowing that at some point in their rise, they will likely break my heart and go on to better jobs for more money, or leave to start their own company.
And when they do, I want to be graceful enough to wish them well. And if I am really smart, I should be the first investor in their next adventure.
Rule No. 722:
Send me the term sheet.