Where Is Larry Page? Alphabet Deserves Better
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- At a meeting last week of Alphabet Inc. stockholders, a man lobbed a simple query at the company’s chairman: Where is the CEO?
He was told that Larry Page, the head of Google’s parent company and its co-founder, wasn’t able to to come to the annual session with shareholders, who asked tricky questions about the company’s approach to artificial intelligence ethics, treatment of its contract workers and its impact on Bay Area home prices. Page wasn’t at last year’s annual meeting, either.
The stockholder sessions aren’t Page’s only glaring absence. It was news when Page and the company’s other founder, Sergey Brin, recently broke an unusually long attendance lapse at the traditional weekly Q&A for employees. U.S. lawmakers last year criticized Page for declining to appear at a hearing about exploitation of internet platforms. The senators’ outrage was a stunt, but they weren’t wrong to ask the same question as the Alphabet shareholder: Where is Larry Page?
Page has always been an idiosyncratic executive. Both before and after he became CEO eight years ago, Page tended to focus on product strategy and ceded policy matters, budget-setting, shareholder outreach and many day-to-day functions to others. That role was formalized with the 2015 creation of the Alphabet structure and the installation of operating CEOs under Page — principally Google leader Sundar Pichai.
The arrangement might have been a good idea at the time. But a storm is raging in Silicon Valley, and technology superpowers require accountable, visible and empowered leaders to advocate for their companies and assess the wider impact of their products. Instead, Alphabet has both a functional CEO in Pichai and a figurehead CEO who busies himself with far-off technology and is otherwise increasingly a ghost inside and outside of the company.
Pichai is a capable leader of Alphabet’s only relevant business segment. But as long as the status quo continues, there will always be that niggling question: What does Larry think? Where is he?
Page tended to shun the executive tasks he didn’t like, but he wasn’t always so hands-off. In early 2011, Page retook the CEO post he had given up in Google’s early years to Eric Schmidt, the hired hand and “adult supervision” for the young Page and Brin. For a while, Page was an active CEO, meeting with underlings and openly discussing efforts to slim bureaucracy and make Google operate more like a startup.
Over time and particularly after the 2015 debut of Alphabet, Page’s official duties seem to have narrowed to a pinprick. Maybe it was a conscious decision to give Pichai more authority. Maybe Page was limited by his voice — vocal cord damage had reduced the volume of his speaking voice. Maybe Page grew reliant on Schmidt, who until he stepped down as executive chairman in early 2018 handled policy issues and other public duties.
Whatever the reason, Page has been less actively involved as the personal and professional demands have increased for the other CEOs of U.S. technology superpowers. Facebook Inc.’s Mark Zuckerberg has become extremely practiced at apologizing. Jeff Bezos, the chief executive officer of Amazon.com Inc., had his personal life splashed in tabloid pages. Apple Inc.’s Tim Cook is at the White House so often he should have a West Wing frequent visitor card. Pichai is not the titular boss but has to do all the duties of one.(1) This is probably not what any of them imagined the job would be.
I’m sure Page continues to do what needs to be done. John Hennessy, the Alphabet chairman, said at the stockholder gathering that Page attends every board meeting and meets frequently with him and other directors. At an event last fall, Pichai said that Page is very involved and that the Alphabet structure of a big-picture CEO with operating executives has worked as intended.
Page’s role is to ponder future technologies, someone who pushes Alphabet to make big bets and scout promising talent. That’s essential to keep a technology company relevant. But does Page need to be the CEO of the world's fourth-largest public company to play this role?
And Page seems to want to have it both ways. He wants the power of a CEO to be able to award on his own a $150 million stock payout to an executive under investigation for sexual harassment, according to a lawsuit, but he doesn’t want the responsibility of a CEO to show up in front of sometimes unhappy employees at regular meetings, to face questions from annoyed shareholders or to absorb verbal blows from members of Congress. (Alphabet has disputed the lawsuit’s characterization of Page’s role in the stock award.)
As the technology industry faces growing government scrutiny, this may not be the time for a visionary, chimerical CEO. Everyone would like to do only the interesting parts of a job and skip the unpleasant or dull tasks. That’s not how adult life works, and that isn't how a public company should work, either.
(1) It's a pop psychology explanation, but I wonder if the structure unwittingly removes some authority from Pichai. At the stockholder meeting last week, Pichai sat oddly silent for more than 20 minutes while others tackled sometimes angry questions about matters such as Google's driverless car project, the company's approach to ethics in artificial intelligence and compensation for the company's army of contract workers. Pichai may not have the temperament to graciously interact with irked shareholders and employees, or pal around with Washington power brokers as Schmidt did. Or maybe Pichai has a little less swagger because he is ultimately not the boss.
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Shira Ovide is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. She previously was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.
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