As a keynote speaker expounding on the "Future of the Internet" earlier this year, Google ceo Larry Page told members of the Commonwealth Club of California that he had entered the terms "future of the Internet" and "talk" into his search engine in hopes of finding a ready-made speech. The search didn't work, Page joked, "So, we still have work to do on Google."
Google, a private company founded by Page and President Sergey Brin in 1998, seems to operate as if the golden years of 1998-1999 never came to a crashing halt. Page's company is the world's largest and, arguably, the most thorough search engine on the Web.
Ask a dot-com ceo about leadership and workforce issues in 2001 and you'll likely hear about ipo postponements, the pitfalls of poor scenario planning, pink-slip parties or nasdaq de-listings. Ask Page for his take and he steers the discussion toward the free organic meals the Google chefs still serve up, weekly street-hockey contests, the in-house masseuse and the lego sets and micro-scooters strewn about the campus. He'll also point out that 40 of Google's 200 employees possess a Ph.D.
Perhaps it's Page's Old Economy approach to risk and growth management that has enabled Google to weather the startup shakeout. Page describes Google's finances as being "in good shape" thanks to revenue gained through providing search services to other companies and through a unique approach to onsite advertising (text-based pitches attached to certain, but not all, search responses).
Google boasts a classic and frequently retold dot-com origin: Smart guys hatch brilliant idea that attracts massive funding, devours market share and changes the world. The hubris of that last objective, combined with shoddy (or, in many cases, absent) financial discipline, brought to earth a fleet of Internet startups beginning last year. But in Google's case, its brilliant idea as well as the brainpower it has attracted through the hiring process has sustained the business through the downturn.
The company began in 1995 as a research project at Stanford University. Computer science Ph.D. candidates Page and Brin met and began developing the search technology that later formed the foundation of Google Inc. In September 1998, Page and Brin formed the company, and by June 1999, venture capitalists had invested $25 million in the startup. Today, Google delivers more than 100 million searches and provides search services to more than 120 corporate customers (portals and destination sites).
Page's approach to leading Google is succinct—"hire the smartest people possible"—and grounded in a Silicon Valley sensibility that veers toward dot-com platitudes. "It has been important," he notes, "to create a happy, healthy work environment that fosters open communication and enables Googlers to feel that their individual contributions make a difference." Page and Brin make every effort to lead the company "without the hierarchy seen at many traditionally structured companies." In fact, Page says he treats the entire staff as collaborators in developing Google's search engine by promoting open communication throughout the company and by requiring each employee to set quarterly objectives.
To keep his employees focused, Page's hands-on approach includes meeting regularly with individuals and teams throughout the company to discuss their specific projects and program goals. Each Friday, Page and Brin host a companywide meeting as a forum to discuss Google's current standing and address challenges and concerns about the future.
Page also encourages staff members to take classes and pursue professional development opportunities on their own. He has also put in place a mentoring program for engineers and a workforce training program, with several more formalized training and development systems in the works. His main workforce development strategy, he stresses, is making sure the company absorbs new staff as it grows, while retaining Google's corporate culture.
That organic approach to cultivating a highly talented workforce helps Page lead Google as he searches for ways to transform and leverage brilliant ideas into sustainable profits over the long term.