Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s vision for the return to work
“I really appreciate the calm in the morning,” says Pichai, 49. “It’s the only time I can step back and think. Normally I have a quiet breakfast; reading the news is very important to me. I always read the Newspaper in the morning. I also read other news and I have a good idea of what’s going on in the world. Pichai, who is a vegetarian, has eaten the same breakfast almost every day for 15 years – eggs and toast, and chai to drink – so he can focus on other things he needs to do.
Pichai was born and raised in Chennai, India. After his university studies in India, he obtained a scholarship to study at Stanford University, where he obtained a master’s degree in materials science and engineering. He worked at the semiconductor company Applied Materials before earning his MBA at Wharton. After graduating, Pichai worked in management consulting at McKinsey & Co., then joined Google in 2004 as a project manager, where he worked on Google Chrome and Google Toolbar. In 2014, he was named chief product officer by Google co-founder Larry Page, before being selected to become the next CEO after Page left office a year later. Pichai was promoted in 2019 to CEO of Google’s parent company, Alphabet.
Here he speaks to the WSJ. about what he does to unwind and the importance of making life-changing decisions he learned from his mentor, Bill Campbell.
What makes a Monday morning different from other weekday mornings?
Monday morning is especially when I really try to think about the important things I want to do for the week, or some deeper thoughts. I have a notepad and a pen and I often write down the three to five things I want to do that week.
Do you check it as you go?
Because I only write three to five things – so it’s in my head, what I’m trying to do – on Fridays I look back and cross out/decide what I want to carry over to next week.
Do you set aside a specific time to meditate, journal, brainstorm, or something like that?
Meditation is something I see the value of, but I find it difficult to do. Walking is very useful to me. I find it much easier to think when I’m walking or pacing. During the pandemic it has sometimes been helpful to walk my dog and I can relax listening to podcasts. I found these podcasts that are Sleepless Deep Rest, or NSDR. So even if I have trouble meditating, I can go to YouTube, find an NSDR video. They are available in 10, 20 or 30 minutes, so I do it from time to time.
What is your exercise routine like?
Weekends are big for me. Saturday and Sunday I train properly. I also tend to walk/hike a lot. On Friday evening, I end my week with a workout. Monday to Thursday is a bit more when I can catch it. Late at the end of the day before dinner, I go to practice. I definitely get bored doing the same thing, so it can be a Peloton bike workout or I just pick something and do it.
What are your thoughts on returning to work and the future of the office right now? What do you think is the best model for the future?
What excites me most is that I believe the future of work will be flexible. I see it as a new canvas on which we can develop new ways that make people’s professional lives more fulfilling and their personal lives more fulfilling. Even 20 years ago, Google was doing things very differently, embracing the idea that there could be fun at work, and creating that flexibility gave people a chance to be more creative and collaborative and fostered a sense of community. So I feel like there’s an even greater chance – you know, we’ve been through a few decades where work got busy, commutes were tough. I think people felt very tense…. We deal with a lot of people who are really motivated and high achievers. And I think empowering them to have that flexibility will bring out the best in them, personally and professionally, which will also work for the business.
Specifically, we think it’s important to have people come a few days a week, but we accept all options. Our workforce setup will be done entirely remotely, but most of our workforce will come in three days a week. But I think we can be more determined about when they are, making sure that group meetings or collaboration, creative collaborative brainstorming or community building happens at that time. I’m excited. I think people and teams will understand that, but overall I feel energized that we can rethink for the next 10 years.
Last year, Alphabet had its best year of revenue growth since 2007, and the stock price jumped 65%. Are you feeling the pressure to pull off a rehearsal this year?
I always say you have to take a very long-term view, and I feel that our performance last year is the result of many decisions we made many years ago. For example, when I look back over the past year, some of the strength has come from our significant investments in AI many years ago. The long-term focus on things like…using AI to improve search quality for many years, the big bets we’ve made to make YouTube and the cloud a long-term business. I’ve always felt like you’re making long-term bets and they unfold over time. There are other long-term endeavors we are working on, and that gives me a great sense of optimism about what lies ahead.
How do you reconcile a company like Google/Alphabet being a global giant? How do you maintain a spirit of innovation and not become too cautious?
You care about it every day. At a fundamental level, the two or three attributes I would say are: One, which I’ve talked about before, you take a long-term view. [Two,] I think we have a culture of optimism, in the power of technology to solve problems. And third, and most importantly, you need to encourage and reward risk taking. It’s easier said than done. Lots of people say that, but I think most people end up thwarting the results. Personally, I pull people up, I promote people, knowing that they took a risk and did their best and made smart decisions, and the results don’t reflect not always that. This leads to innovation over time.
What do you read and watch?
I enjoyed podcasts and YouTube to learn and relax. I tend to watch a lot of long content on YouTube that is focused on learning a lot of things. It can be new things like “Hey, I need to learn mRNA technology because it’s something I’m not working on, and I don’t understand and I need to understand.” Or I’m trying to figure out what’s going on in physics or AI or whatever. [Editor’s note: Google owns YouTube.] I actually find it very relaxing, especially if it’s away from my field. I read a lot of cosmology or astrophysics, all that relaxes me a lot. Sport is a good way to relax, I like football, like in real football, and cricket. I also try to watch what interests my wife and children; it’s a way to connect, and so I’m trying to do that too.
What makes you feel most productive?
One of my mentors was Bill Campbell, who was sort of a coach for many people in the Valley. [Editor’s note: Campbell, who died in 2016, was an ex–football coach and business executive who was the subject of Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook from Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell by Eric Schmidt, Jonathan Rosenberg and Alan Eagle.] I met him on Monday. He would ask, which is kind of a famous line he had, “What ties did you break this week?” When you’re running a large organization, there are constant bottlenecks because groups see things differently and they can’t align, and there’s no one to make that critical decision sometimes. Making these decisions is not always easy; sometimes there are difficult compromises. So making a decision like that can make me feel very productive. Productivity isn’t always about you doing a lot of things yourself; it’s about understanding how you unlock productivity for the entire organization. Getting some of those longer term positions, pivots, big bets, people in roles, breaking ties – those are the things for me that are a lot more productive than sending out 50 or 100 emails in a day .
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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