Eric Schmidt to leave Google, offers object lessons on leadership in transition

Eric Schmidt's Days at Google Always Seemed Numbered - Adi Ignatius - Harvard Business Review

Adi Ignatius has been writing about leadership of Google for many years, and comes with some authority to this discussion of leadership in transition at the company. CEO Eric Schmidt announced yesterday plans to step down, to be replaced by founder Larry Page. This bit, from Ignatius' latest post over at HBR, illustrates much of the compelling consternation that has come from the Schmidt-Page-Brin trio over the years.

At another point, I sat down with the three over a table of Legos — Brin and Page are constant tinkerers — and asked them the question that all of Silicon Valley wondered: whether Schmidt actually played a substantial role in the company, or if he was brought in primarily to calm shareholders. "That's been the buzz since I joined. My answer is simply to let the company's results speak for themselves," Schmidt answered. "Good answer," Page quickly added.

A big leadership transition is tough, no matter how you slice it. But we can learn a few key object lessons from Google's story which may apply to our own collective stories down the road.

First, leaders are people, too. At Google, Schmidt might not have been brought in specifically to provide adult supervision, but his presence brought to the organization a sense of maturity that his background as CEO at Novell had earned him. His purpose was to bring a new level of focus and attention to the business of Google, as distinct from the technology of Google. His work there, in spite of the grand variety of his public relations gaffs over the years, has shone him to be an able manager who should be remembered fondly for integrating these two areas. Now, his work is done.

Second, leaders can be developed. Larry Page was a smart guy, a founder of a deeply smart company, and had some terrific instincts about setting up a culture that motivates and drives innovation (the legendary Google "Innovation Time Off," aka "20% time" is just one example). Take this brief bit of wisdom widely attributed to Page:

“We don't have as many managers as we should, but we would rather have too few than too many.”

But Page was not a CEO. Schmidt's experience and perspective, his successes and gaffs, all served to support and develop Page as a leader. Whether that professional development was always part of the plan at the outset isn't really the question; Page wasn't ready to lead the enterprise then, and he is today. As Adi points out, even Schmidt echoed this angle in his announcement-day tweet: "Day-to-day adult supervision no longer needed!"

Julia Kirby puts a slightly different spin on this relationship in her own response to the transition. Her comparison is of Facebook, where young titan CEO Mark Zuckerburg brought in Sheryl Sandberg, with her key strategic experience as a senior executive at -- ahem -- Google, to provide him executive guidance in his own role. Sandberg is, however, COO. Comparing Schmidt as CEO to Page, and Zuckerburg as CEO to Sandberg, says Kirby:

Those are not subtle distinctions. In a learning situation, it matters very much whether the dynamic you have set up is the relationship of equals, of sensei to student, or of advisor to king.

Third, smart organizations can weather any transition in the eyes of the public. Did you see what happened in the market when Google made this announcement? That key executive leadership was shuffling? Leadership which may indicate a shift in strategic direction? A new focus for the search and advertising behemoth?

Nothing.

The reaction was monumentally even-headed. The stock market was neutral. The pundits used the opportunity to recount a few laughs at Schmidt's expense. But overall, the market's collective yawn over the event indicates more than anything that even though no one really saw it coming, we were ready.

This is an organization that understands the importance of the bench. There are key leaders across the company that have been encouraged through culture and directive to grow their people into tomorrow's leaders.

As high profile a change as this is for Google, it provides a great opportunity for us to take a step back and look at our own bench. Who are your future leaders? Take the challenge and find the department heads, managers, and team members that are ready to step up and take over so deftly as not to miss a step. Do everything you can to encourage, inspire, and develop that talent on your own teams.