Why Larry and Sergey were smart to step back

Google's founders hand over the reins to Sundar Pichai.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 04 Dec 2019

"We’ve never been ones to hold on to management roles when we think there’s a better way to run the company."

With these words, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin announced they were stepping down from their respective roles as CEO and President of Google’s parent company Alphabet, leaving overall control to Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

On the surface, it seems an odd decision. Do they really doubt their ability to lead the firm? Larry and Sergey may look like tech geeks and sound like tech geeks, but you don’t start a company in your garage and turn it into a $900bn behemoth in just over 20 years without knowing a thing or two about business as well.

But perhaps there’s wisdom in their choice. For a start, in some respects the company they founded and grew, first as a private enterprise and then after 2004 as a public company, no longer exists. 

Its values and culture may or may not be the same, its business model is still based on search with productivity tools, phones and moonshots attached, but the challenges it will face in the next five years as it continues to grow - and it is still growing a remarkable rate - will no doubt be quite different from those the two founders faced when they started. It would be odd if they had an equal aptitude for both situations (though Jeff Bezos shows it is possible).

Despite the talent for business Page and Brin have amply demonstrated, it may well just be the case that Pichai is better suited to this task than they are, and an advisory role (they describe it as being non-nagging "parents", neglecting to mention their continued control of 51 per cent of the company’s voting rights…) may be the best way they can help their business thrive. 

It’s a reality most company founders would do well to recognise - we all have our use-by dates. You may know and care more about your business than anyone else on the planet, you may be just as skilful as you ever were, but there eventually comes a point when you can no longer bring the fresh perspective to the role that it requires. If that’s the case, why not go out on a high?

Of course Google’s 46-year-old founders may simply want to do something different with their lives, and they’re entitled to that as well.

In any case, it will very likely be a smooth transition. In Pichai they have an obvious successor and a close collaborator for 15 years. He’s already had control of the main search business since 2015, when Page and Brin created the Alphabet structure. Day to day, little is likely to change straight away.

A lot of people try to copy Silicon Valley when it’s not appropriate, as though some of its magic will somehow rub off. Firms like Google are far from perfect, despite their successes, facing major problems with overwork, groupthink and bro culture. But in this case Page and Brin have, in stepping down, neatly shown how it’s done.

Image credit: Steve Jennings/WireImage/Getty Images


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