This story is part of the Behind the Desk series, where CNBC Make It connects with successful business executives to find out everything from how they got here to where they are, what gets them out of bed in the morning, and their daily routines.
When it comes to career achievements, it’s hard to top Eric Schmidt.
Schmidt, a self-described software “nerd” from Falls Church, Virginia, was hired as chairman and then CEO of Google by co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin in 2001 to provide some “adult oversight” to his team. growing web search engine. At the time, Schmidt was only 46 years old, but he was already a seasoned technology executive, with senior roles at Novell and Sun Microsystems on his resume.
He served as CEO of Google until 2011, helping transform the company from a young Silicon Valley startup into a global tech giant with a current market value of more than $1.8 trillion. He remained CEO until 2017 and technical advisor until 2020.
Schmidt is currently the 66th richest person in the world with a net worth of around $23 billion, according to Forbes, so it’s easy to forget just how small Google was when it came on the scene.
“The company was made up of 100 people, and I didn’t particularly believe in the advertising model,” Schmidt, 66, told CNBC Make It. Even as CEO, he says, he had no idea how big Google could grow: “I really I liked the people.”
Rather than push through a grand plan to turn the startup into a behemoth, he says, he focused on his own individual strengths: being a workaholic, having a passion for building things, and leaning on his own likeability. That last trait, he says, caused people to underestimate him at times.
“I always benefited from the conceit that I was a nice guy and not a nice businessman. So my trick was: I was always the nicest person in the room,” Schmidt says, adding that if you use that strategy, ” You had better be able to back it up with real rigour, real output, and real decision-making.”
In Google terms, the rest is history. Today, Schmidt focuses on his nonprofit organization Schmidt Futures, which funds research on big ideas in fields like artificial intelligence, biology and energy. Last year, he co-wrote the book “The Age of AI” as a roadmap for what the future of technology could look like.
Here, Schmidt talks about building a successful career, working with Steve Jobs, his biggest mistakes at Google, and how he handles criticism.
On building a successful career: ‘Luck is the first and most important thing I ever had’
I think anyone in my position should start by saying that luck is the first and most important thing I’ve ever had. Luck of birth, education, interest, opportunity, and the business he was in. I also worked hard, but luck is just as important, if not more important, and as you get luckier, 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 God.
The most successful people have a lot of skill and also guts. I don’t think I understood my ambition, I just thought what we were working on was really interesting. But I got my strength as adulthood progressed.
It took me a long time to understand who he was and what he was good at. It is important to feel comfortable with who you are and how you behave and react, because today there is a lot of criticism and pressure, especially for young people.
How Steve Jobs influenced his leadership style: ‘He was not a normal person, by no means’
Steve Jobs, with whom I worked very closely [Jobs recruited Schmidt to be on Apple’s board from 2006 to 2009] and greatly admired, he was not a normal person, by no means.
When he was “turned on”, his charisma and insight were so extraordinarily better than anyone else’s that he could overcome any handicap with the way he treated people. People admired him a lot.
If you look at history, great leaders have this unique ability to inspire people in a personal way. The important thing is not whether you are cheerful or discreet, but whether you can inspire people to come together and get excited about changing the world.
[Personally]I learned that it is important to have teenage children. They are relatively unmanageable, but they need to be managed. You learn to let them do what they want until it becomes dangerous or serious. So, you have to put your foot down. It’s all good until it’s not, in which case, we have to act fast.
That’s a pretty good management style. But I don’t mean to say that there is only one management style.
On turning Google into a giant: “We made a lot of mistakes along the way”
I had the benefit of working with Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin], who were both my best friends and partners. Larry, Sergey and I would have huge food fights over this or that. Honestly, we would not agree. But there was never a time when I doubted his commitment to the company and the cause.
If the two of them agreed, I would usually just say “yes.” If they disagreed, I would force a process where the three of us would come to some conclusion. Usually his ideas were better than mine.
[When I started at Google] He didn’t understand the scale of the company, and he had no idea what was possible. he would have suspected 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 about social media: Google was one of the early movers in social media, but they didn’t really execute it very well. The timing of entry into these exploding platform markets is incredibly important. Even going a few months ahead of time makes a big difference with the right product.
On handling criticism: ‘Get used to it. I got used’