Google I/O 2016: 12 Leadership Qualities of Google’s Sundar Pichai

Sundar Pichai Leadership
Sundar Pichai Delivering Google I/O 2016 Keynote

Google I/O 2016 held at the legendary Shoreline Amphitheater, proved Larry Page and Sergey Brin have found a superior CEO for Google in Sundar Pichai.  Mr. Pichai came on my radar while running the Android division of Google.  Since then, I have watched him carefully, and his every step has impressed me.

There are 12 things I noticed about his understated, visionary, and team building leadership of the company.  These 12 leadership qualities of Sundar Pichai could easily be considered the standard for 21st century leaders in any organization, inclusive or otherwise.

1) Humanity

As Clay Bavor, who runs Google’s virtual reality efforts, says of Mr. Pichai’s approach to digital technologies, “You want a deeply thoughtful, caring human person, thinking about those issues and leading the company making those things happen. I’m really glad that he, of all people, is Google’s CEO. That’s what I tell my friends.”
Mat Honan, Searching for Sundar Pichai

In all fairness, Google has always been a very human company to me.  Since we develop assistive educational software at Digital Scribbler, with an emphasis on inclusive technologies for those with special needs, the support extended to us by Google in our effort to serve our customers has been exceptional.

This humanity manifests itself in compassion, understanding, and a willingness to put people before profits. While Google’s critics are quick to highlight when they fail to live up to this ideal, selecting someone like Sundar Pichai reinforces their commitment to building a people first company.  When Clay Bavor describes Mr. Pichai as a “deeply thoughtful, caring human person,” he is verifying the people first character of Sundar Pichai.

2) Understated

Pichai himself, however, seems unchanged: he remains unflappable, understated and unfalteringly polite.
Miguel Helft, Inside Sundar Pichai’s Plan to Put AI Everywhere

Journalist can be charmed, and Miguel Helft may have met the ‘Pichai distortion field,’ when he concluded the CEO was ‘unchanged’ by his success.  I tend to think Mr. Helft has a deft perception for authenticity, and recognized the same humility the audience is drawn to in the following interview.

As a leader, Pichai was always well-liked and more focused on results instead of standing out.
Jillian D’Onfro, The Incredible Rise of Sundar Pichai

When a leader focuses on results instead of “standing out,” it means their focus is on building the organization not being the center of attention. They are understated.  This is the type of leadership necessary to build enduring companies, a quality documented by Jim Collins as “Level 5 Leadership.”

3) Relationships

It’s five days before he will take the stage at the company’s annual developer conference, Google I/O, its biggest public event. It’s Pichai’s first I/O since he became CEO last year when Larry Page reorganized the company into Alphabet. And it’s the first that will be held at Shoreline Amphitheater, an arena for rock concerts within a stone’s throw from Pichai’s office, rather than in the more staid San Francisco venue of years past. (“I wanted to create a sense of community, make it more informal, make it more like how Google works every day,” Pichai says.)
Miguel Helft, Inside Sundar Pichai’s Plan To Put AI Everywhere

When Mr. Pichai says, “I wanted to create a sense of community,” he is describing the value he places on relationships.  This comes out in everything including his speaking style at Google I/O, where his conversational and personal style created an emotional connection.  This relational style of speaking is important to understand, because instead of relying on the charisma of personality, it focuses on the human connection.

The human connection reveals an emotional intelligence, which recognizes inspiring ideas attract talent, but only deep connections build teams.  If there is one quality about to separate Mr. Pichai from his CEO peers, it won’t be his technical depth or breadth, but his ability to attract talent, because he values people.  One look at the talent allowed to shine on stage at Google I/O  2016 made this point clear.

4) Collaborative

What is Pichai’s leadership style? According to reports, he is self-deprecating, empathetic, supportive and graceful at navigating political minefields. He avoids confrontation, instead emphasizing cooperation. He waits out conflicts rather than confronting opponents. “He has great relationships. He’s just not a polarizing figure,” Minnie Ingersoll, a former Google product manager who worked with Pichai early in his career, told The Wall Street Journal.
Susan Adams, Who is Google’s New Chief, Sundar Pichai

When someone values relationships they tend to have a collaborative leadership style.  This is certainly true of Mr. Pichai as confirmed by Susan Adam’s reporting.  He understands how to be empathetic, supportive, and “navigate political minefields.” This is exactly what great collaborators know how to do.

5) Deal Maker

Pichai was very successful in that deal making and helped to get Google’s products pre-installed on tens of millions of computers. Those deals were worth billions of dollars to Google, and recaptured another large slice of customers who were potentially being lost to Bing.
Jeff Nelson, former Googler on Quora

Making deals is about building relationships, and the best deal makers try to meet the need of their partners and customers, instead of gaining an advantage.  Read more of Jeff Nelson’s account on Quora, and you will discover Mr. Pichai’s deal-making ability helped Google navigate doomsday.

6) Mastery

Early on, Pichai had a talent for remembering numbers, which his family realized when he could recall every phone number he had ever dialed on their rotary phone. He will still sometimes show off his memorization skills at meetings, to colleagues’ awe.
Jillian D’Onfro, The Incredible Rise of Sundar Pichai

Speaking softly in his lilting South-Indian accent, Pichai parries questions with his trademark calm and poise. He’s not a sound bite man. So his excitement at what Google will show off – at what the company is becoming – is masked by his long, meandering and thoughtful answers, always rich with context about the evolution of computing, the history of Google and what users expect. In the midst of it all, he’s graceful enough to acknowledge breakthroughs from rivals, like Amazon, whose popular Echo smart speaker he calls an “exciting new category” of product.
Miguel Helft, Inside Sundar Pichai’s Plan To Put AI Everywhere

Listening to Mr. Pichai deliver his portion of the Google I/O 2016 keynote his mastery was evident.  He has a mastery of every detail in the Google vision, and explains it with simplicity, clarity, and depth.  Despite his incredible level of mastery, he appears secure enough not to micromanage his team.  Those tasked with the various components of the Google vision have obvious autonomy, something reflected in the speed at which the company expands into the wide variety of areas in which they have an interest.

Mr. Pichai is made secure by his mastery, a security eluding less informed CEOs.  This is yet another reason why he will help make the Google culture increasingly attractive to great talent, and let’s be honest, great ideas only matter if your employees have the ability to execute.

7) Fearless

These are probably good traits to have as Pichai is about to lead Google into uncharted waters.
Miguel Helft, Inside Sundar Pichai’s Plan To Put AI Everywhere

Mr. Pichai seems calm and at ease in his leadership role, despite the fact that Google is entering uncharted waters with their Google I/O 2016 vision.  This produces an understated fearlessness, which seems to imbue his team with an unwavering confidence that success is inevitable.

I spent some time trying to discover the source of this understated fearlessness, and I found it in a story documented by Stephen Levy in his book “In The Plex.”

“At the time, Google was about to launch a project it had been developing for more than a year, a free cloud-based storage service called GDrive.  But Sundar had concluded that it was an artifact of the style of computing that Google was about to usher out the door.  He went to Bradley Horowitz, the executive in charge of the project, and said, “I don’t think we need GDrive anymore.”  Horowitz asked why not. “Files are so 1990,” said Pichai.  “I don’t think we need files anymore.”  Horowitz was stunned. “Not need files anymore?”  “Think about it,” said Pichai. “You just want to get information into the cloud.  When people use our Google Docs, there are no more files. You just start editing in the cloud, and there’s never a file.”
Steven Levy, In The Plex

Mr. Pichai displayed his fearlessness in this conversation occurring approximately 8 years ago. He was willing to question a project in development for over a year.  His words “files are so 1990,” reveal a focus on building the company not his resume.  A focus rooted in getting results not attention.

When Pichai first proposed this concept to Google’s top executives at a GPS—no files!—the reaction was, he says, “skeptical.” Upson had another characterization: “It was a withering assault.”  But eventually they won people over by a logical argument—that it could be done, that it was the cloudlike thing to do, that it was the Google thing to do.  That was the end of GDrive: shuttered as a relic of antiquated thinking even before Google released it.
Steven Levy, In The Plex

The “withering assault” is something any agent of change will experience, but how they respond to it determines whether they become an influence or unemployed.  Mr. Pichai and his team responded with “logical argument,” which is exactly how a secure, understated, and fearless person responds.  Why?  This type of person and leader is focused on building the company or organization, even at the expense of their own job.

Knowing these stories from the trenches make clear why Google employees haven’t missed a beat with Mr. Pichai at the helm.

8) Transformational

Pichai wants to put his own stamp on this transformation, and it’s one that will radically change how more than a billion people on the planet interact with Google’s core service, search. If search 1.0 was Google’s original 10-blue-links, and search 2.0 (and 2.1 and 2.2 and so on) the later versions that blended news, images, video, shopping information, and “knowledge” cards about millions of people, businesses and things, Pichai is getting ready to unveil search 3.0. It’s built around what the company calls the Google assistant (with lowercase “a”), a conversational interface to Google that at first glance looks a lot like what Facebook and Microsoft have talked up earlier this year.
Miguel Helft, Inside Sundar Pichai’s Plan To Put AI Everywhere

Mr. Pichai wants to be a transformational CEO.  He wants to radically change the world. Transactional leaders are primarily interested in sales, revenue, and the stock price.  Wall Street is god and customers are sacrificed to please her.  Transformational leaders are primarily interested in a vision.  The problems of the world challenge even disturb them, and they are willing to sacrifice their comfort to solve them.

Some might ask how Google assistant can change the world?  Let me relay a story told to me by an engineer at Google I/O 2016.  He said he grew up in a small village in India.  In his village was a man who sold vegetables.  Apparently, this man pushed his cart of vegetables through the village each day.  The people would come up to his cart, examine the vegetables, and then make their purchase.  Over time the village grew and modernized.  Village style dwellings were replaced with apartment complexes.   The vegetable salesman could no longer reach his customers, because instead of being easily reached on the road, the people were in their apartments.  One day the gentlemen figured out he could get himself a phone, take pictures of the vegetables, and post them on social media.   The engineer telling me this smiled as he described his mother looking at the picture, examining the vegetables, and then making the decision to leave the apartment to purchase her selected vegetables from the man with the cart…and a smartphone.

Something tells me Mr. Pichai wants to give this person the tools he or she needs be they in a small village in India, rural town in America, or war torn section of Africa or the Middle East.   Whether the person needs food or freedom, a mirco loan or tools for protesting oppression–my guess is Mr. Pichai believes the information and connectivity of digital power can transform their lives.

9) Math and Science

“For us, this is an evolution of Google itself,” he says. “People have been asking Google stuff all the time, so the question is how do we do it better.” The answer: artificial intelligence and machine learning, areas of computer science that are all the buzz now but that Google has been working on for well over a decade. Pichai is ready to bring the fruits of that work – be it in voice recognition, machine translation, natural language understanding, computer vision and other areas – to the Google assistant, and in time, to a just about every corner of Google empire. “We have this vision of a shift from mobile-first to an AI-first world over many years,” Pichai says, using the shorthand for artificial intelligence and reprising the theme of the company’s annual Founders’ Letter.
Miguel Helft, Inside Sundar Pichai’s Plan To Put AI Everywhere

Something I write about in “Tesla Invents, Apple Sells, and Google Thinks,” is the fact that Google is more about science than software or hardware engineering.  They are putting the ‘science’ back into computer science, and Mr. Pichai embodies this mindset.   The science culture of Google is rooted in the ‘moonshot’ and ‘20%’ culture created by Founders Page and Brin.   Mr. Pichai is a product of this culture, where they want to do more than solve problems using math and science.  Google wants to engage in math and science research, so they can make breakthroughs in areas like natural language processing.

Mr. Pichai strode across the stage at Google I/O like a scholar or professor instead of a Silicon Valley CEO.   He was teaching not selling.  He was presenting the results of groundbreaking research.  Even the press appears unaware of exactly what is happening as they keep reporting on products, seemingly oblivious to the ideas, perhaps because ideas are more difficult to understand and explain?   We look at the product called Google Home (press, developers, and me too!), while Mr. Pichai and his team have their eyes on the science.

“For us, this is an evolution of Google itself,” he says. “People have been asking Google stuff all the time, so the question is how do we do it better.” The answer: artificial intelligence and machine learning, areas of computer science that are all the buzz now but that Google has been working on for well over a decade. Pichai is ready to bring the fruits of that work – be it in voice recognition, machine translation, natural language understanding, computer vision and other areas – to the Google assistant, and in time, to a just about every corner of Google empire.
Miguel Helft, Inside Sundar Pichai’s Plan to Put AI Everywhere

10) Engineering

He is an engineer. So is his wife. Engineers use science to solve problems and make things. Engineering applies a combination of logic and intuition to problem solving. It’s a way of thinking that leaves one well suited to run a company. We are all watching for what he produces next.
Bill Nye, The Internet’s Chief Engineer

The uniqueness of Google is how they combine a passion for discovery in the areas of math and science, with the practical problem solving of a consumer company.  The only other institutions with this type of culture are universities.  Interestingly enough, one of the foremost examples is Stanford University, a school attended by Pichai, Brin, and Page.

What I love about the engineering science mindset of Google is their understanding of the prototype or clinical trial.  It is my contention that the Nexus line is simply a prototyping or clinical trial to check their science.  Google has no real interest in competing with Apple (design and consumer culture), Facebook (hacking and information culture), because their interest is finding out if their science works.  When you buy a Nexus device you are participating in scientific investigation, whose primary purpose is advancing the human condition, not satisfying the consumer.

This is why some people at Google I/O were disappointed.  They still think we are here to receive new products for our consuming pleasure.  Mr. Pichai delivered a clear message in his keynote, which is Google’s purpose is to advance the human condition not make today’s consumer happy.  He is going to lead this company to make the world a better place, and your willingness to plop down hundreds for a digital device is incidental to the goal.

11) Visionary

So when Pichai talks about the next billion people about to come online with smartphones, I get the impression that, for him, Google’s monetization strategy really is secondary to Pichai’s stated goal: giving people everywhere the power of Google’s machine learning whenever and wherever they need it. He’s clearly proud of the fact that Google’s products work the same whether you’re a billionaire or a rural farmer in a far-flung place. And Pichai’s vision is to ensure that dedication becomes a part of everything Google makes.

Dieter Bohn, Chasing The Next Billion with Sundar Pichai

The vision described above is transformational, and what will allow Mr. Pichai to turn Google into the company it wants to be.  He sees beyond the United States and 1st world to a place where the rural farmer is as important as the billionaire. His is a vision reflecting the heart of googlers I meet every day. These are people who want to change the world.  They are the ones who became interested in our work once they heard we were providing a voice to non-verbal children with Autism.

12) Communicator

He’s also a strong communicator who makes sure everyone on his team understands the mission. One reason Page may value him so much is that Pichai has served as Page’s interpreter and facilitator. A piece last year in BusinessInsider on Pichai’s rapid ascent at Google, described a meeting with vice presidents and directors who were arguing about several secret projects. Page walked in and started describing unrelated concepts and ideas, then exited the meeting without taking questions. Pichai entered the room and explained to the group what Page was talking about. “He’s like the Aaron to Larry’s Moses,” a Google source told BusinessInsider, pointing to Pichai’s talent as a spokesman for Page’s ideas.
Susan Adams, Who is Google’s New Chief, Sundar Pichai

Communication never occurred to me when I began writing about Mr. Pichai.  This is where I landed after developing the first 11 qualities.  This quality makes him an excellent example of the type of leader every organization will need as we move more deeply into a digital age, where deep emotional ties are rare.

The ability to communicate reflects emotional intelligence.  Emotional intelligence is not generally seen as the dominant quality in the science or engineering field (or many other fields if we are honest).

Mr. Pichai clearly has this in his leadership skill set, which makes him an excellent choice to guide the science company we call Google, into a future where they advance every life from the billionaire to the rural farmer.