Ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt On Career Building, Working With Steve Jobs

This story is part of the Behind the Desk series, where CNBC Make It interviews successful business leaders to learn everything from how they got to where they are, to what made them getting out of bed in the morning and their daily routines.

When it comes to career accomplishments, it’s hard to top Eric Schmidt.

A self-described software “nerd” from Falls Church, Va., Schmidt was hired as Google president, then CEO, by co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin in 2001 to provide information “adult supervision” to their growing web search engine. At the time, Schmidt was only 46, but he was already a seasoned technical executive, with executive positions at Novell and Sun Microsystems on his resume.

He served as CEO of Google until 2011, helping to transform the company from a young Silicon Valley start-up to a global tech giant with a market value today of more than $1.8 trillion. He remained executive chairman until 2017 and technical adviser until 2020.

Currently, Schmidt is the 66th richest person in the world with a net worth of around $23 billion. according to Forbes — so it’s easy to forget how small Google was when it arrived on the scene.

“The company had 100 people and I didn’t particularly believe in the advertising model,” explains Schmidt, 66. CNBC does. Even as CEO, he says, he had no idea of ​​Google’s growth: “I really liked people. »

Instead of pushing a grand plan to turn the startup into a giant, he says, he focused on his own individual strengths — being a workaholic, having a passion for building things and leaning into his own sympathy. This last trait, he says, has sometimes caused people to underestimate him.

“I always benefited from the presumption that I was a nice guy and not a very good businessman. I’ve always been the nicest person in the room,” Schmidt says, adding that if you use this strategy, “you better be able to back it up with real rigor, real results, and real leadership. decision”.

As far as Google is concerned, the rest is history. Today, Schmidt focuses on his non-profit Schmidt Futures, which funds the search for big ideas in areas such as artificial intelligence, biology and energy. Last year he co-wrote the book, “The Age of AI”, as a roadmap of what the future of technology might look like.

Here, Schmidt discusses building a successful career, working with Steve Jobs, his biggest mistakes at Google, and how he handles criticism.

I think anyone in my position should start by saying that luck was the first and most important thing I had. Birth luck, upbringing, interest, timing, and the company I was in. I also worked hard, but luck is just as important, if not more, and as you get lucky, you create your own luck.

I was a young executive, promoted fairly quickly. I describe myself as a workaholic. Most people aren’t workaholics, thank goodness.

The most successful people have a lot of skills and also courage. I don’t think I understood my ambition – I just thought what we were working on was really interesting. But I gained strength as adulthood progressed.

It took me a long time to figure out who I was and what I was good at. It’s important to feel comfortable with who you are and how you behave and react, because there is so much criticism and pressure today, especially for young people.

Steve Jobs, with whom I worked closely [Jobs recruited Schmidt to be on Apple’s board from 2006 to 2009] and admired a lot, was not a normal person, by any means.

When he was “on”, his charisma and ideas were so extraordinarily better than anyone else’s that he was able to overcome all handicaps with the way he treated people. People admired him so much.

You Tube founder Chad Hurley, Google CEO Eric Schmidt, Apple CEO and co-founder Steve Jobs and Google co-founder Sergey Brin speak after Jobs gave the Macworld keynote 2008 at the Moscone Center on January 15, 2008 in San Francisco, California.

David Paul Morris | Getty Images News | Getty Images

If you look at history, great leaders have this unique ability to inspire people on a personal basis. It’s not about whether you’re flappable or low-key, but whether you can inspire people to join in and be excited about changing the world.

[Personally], I learned that it is important to have teenagers. They are relatively unmanageable, but they must be managed. You learn to let them do what they want until it becomes dangerous or serious. Then you need to put your foot down. It’s fine until it’s not, in which case we need to act fast.

It’s a very good style of management. But I don’t mean that there is only one style of management.

I had the advantage of working with Larry [Page] and Sergei [Brin], who were both my best friends and partners. Larry, Sergey and I had these huge food fights over this or that. Honestly, we disagree. But there was never a time when I doubted their commitment to the company and the cause.

If both were in agreement, I would generally say “yes”. If they didn’t agree, I would force a process where the three of us would come to a conclusion. Usually their ideas were better than mine.

Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google Inc., left, Larry Page, co-founder of Google Inc., center, and Eric Schmidt, president and CEO of Google Inc., attend a press conference inside the Sun Valley Inn at the 28th Annual Allen & Co. Media and Technology Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, USA on Thursday, July 8, 2010.

| Bloomberg | Bloomberg Getty Images

[When I started at Google] I didn’t understand the scale of the business and had no idea what was possible. I would have been suspicious if you had told me [how big Google would get]. Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing, but we made a lot of mistakes along the way.

I think the biggest mistake I made as CEO was with social media: Google was early in social media, but didn’t really execute it very well. The timing of entry into these booming platform markets is extremely important. Even being a few months ahead makes a huge difference with the right product.

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Ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt On Career Building, Working With Steve Jobs

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