Posted by: Bill von Achen | March 25, 2011

Leadership and Google’s Larry Page

Last week, I wrote about Google’s Project Oxygen, in which a research team at the company decided to use its massive search and data-crunching capabilities to answer the question “what makes a better boss?”

I didn’t expect to write about Google again quite so soon, but the April 2011 issue of Fast Company Magazine includes a fascinating profile of company founder Larry Page, who takes over as Google’s CEO on April 4th. The article, written by Farhad Manjoo, speculates on the changes that are likely to happen, and what the Google of tomorrow is likely to look like under Page’s leadership.

From conversations with current and former Google executives who know Page well (Page himself was not interviewed for the article), Manjoo offers his thoughts about how Page will define Google, present and future. He distills his findings into seven lessons, many (if not all) of which are equally applicable to Google, its giant competitors like Apple and Microsoft, and right on down to the start-ups with dreams of being the Googles of tomorrow.

Here’s a brief summary of the seven lessons, a la Page:

A little top-down leadership goes a long way: Google’s best known for its prevailing philosophy of hiring lots of really smart people and then letting them do whatever they want. But when you have 24,000 employees, you need to bring some focus to the process to achieve great things. Manjoo points to the autonomous operating units set up by Page to develop the Android operating system and to retool YouTube as examples of ecosystems that allowed good ideas to flourish within a structure that provides focus.

Spur on your frenemies: Ever wonder why Google launched the Chrome Internet browser when Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Mozilla’s Firefox already had huge shares of the market? Insiders speculate that Page’s real motivation was to spur competitors to make improvements to their aging products, thereby bringing important innovations and improvements to the web experience for all users. When innovation drives innovation, everyone wins.

When in doubt, check the data: After years of limiting to two the number of paid ads appearing at the top of every Google search result, the company is now running three paid ads at the top of certain searches. More ads can mean more revenue, but ultimately less revenue if you upset visitors to the point that they use other search options. Thorough testing and data analysis led Google to believe that it could safely increase the number of ads without alienating visitors.

When in creative mode, don’t start with the data: On the other hand, some issues are better understood by first listening to your inner voice, and those of others. Manjoo points to recent improvements in the Android interface by industry veteran Matias Duarte, who widely shares his ideas with others inside of Google, and then uses data as a tool, not a crutch, to help sort through options. (Can you imagine Steve Jobs doing that?)

A social life is overrated: Google doesn’t have to compete head-on with Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms to play in that sandbox. Instead, it can work to incorporate social features into all of its products so that they feel more “Facebook-like,” and then use these features to collect more data on online social activity. (See also “Spur on your frenemies” above.)

Listen up—talk is cheap: For those who know him, Page is not a typical extroverted CEO, playing to the media. Instead, he’s more comfortable spending time listening and asking questions, and hearing what other people think. Because introverts spend more time listening than talking, they hear more ideas. And such an approach may be more appropriate to the challenges of running a dynamic and fast-changing environment than we know.

No goal is too big (and some are too small): Google’s vast resources make solving even the most seemingly intractable problems possible. For example, Google’s language translation program can translate text into any one of 58 different languages, an accomplishment never believed to be achievable, even by the research engineer hired to develop it. Of course, not every company has Google’s resources. But the real challenge is not the projects themselves, but our preconceived notions of what is possible.

To access the online version of the article (entitled “Seven Ways Larry Page is Defining Google’s Future”), go to our Resources page, and click on the link under “Leadership”

What do you think of these lessons? How can they be applied at your company? And what are their limits? Share your thoughts and ideas on these questions. Thanks!

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