Google CEO Larry Page knows what you think about work


Larry Page, co-founder and chief executive officer at Google. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

The Monday after the July 4 holiday, many people are probably asking why we can't work only four days every week. Google CEO Larry Page thinks maybe we actually can.

Over the weekend, technology site Recode flagged a video from a "fireside chat" that Page and his Google co-founder, Sergey Brin, held with veteran technology investor Vinod Khosla. It was a private event where they touched on a range of topics, including the housing market in San Francisco and how Google was once almost acquired. Then at one point, after speaking about artificial intelligence, the trio started talking about shifts in the labor market. "The idea that everyone needs to work frantically to meet people's needs is just not true," Page said.

Page said he believes that people's basic needs — housing, economic security, opportunities for the next generation — are actually pretty small, yet that their need to have something productive to do is quite significant. One of today's big social problems is finding a way to reconcile the two.

Page offered that one answer would be to have "a coordinated way to just reduce the workweek." He cited Virgin founder Richard Branson, who has been "trying to get people to hire two part-time people instead of one full-time" in order to address the UK's unemployment problem. Page also said that he has asked many people if they would like to have an extra week of vacation, or a four-day work-week, and that everyone raised their hands. "Most people like working, but they'd also like to have more time with their family or to pursue their own interests."

In the wide-ranging conversation, Page shared a number of insights about managing an innovative company and the pressures of today's CEOs. Speaking with a soft voice, a reminder of the vocal cord issues he revealed last year, Page lamented that more business leaders don't (or can't) take a 20-year view when they plot the future of their companies. Instead, they take something more like a four-year view, which he noted is about the average tenure of a Fortune 500 CEO.

That short time horizon makes it challenging for leaders to grapple with the big societal, technological or environmental shifts we face. "I think our whole system is set up in a way that makes it difficult for leaders of really big companies."

Page also spoke about the pressure many founders face to narrow the scope of their businesses. Even Steve Jobs, he said, once told him, "You guys are doing too much stuff." Yet while he admits Jobs might be right, Page also said, "I think it sounds stupid if you have this big company, and you can only do five things," noting that it's also not good for workers. "You have 30,000 employees and they're all doing the same thing, which isn't very exciting for them."

Page said he's come to learn a seemingly contrarian piece of wisdom: businesses can do a lot of things, as long as those things aren't too similar. If projects are different, they can each proceed effectively along their own track. It's when they are related, he said, that you start dealing with overlap and questions of integration — and that's when companies end up with bottlenecks and "a management burden."

Reducing complexity, in fact, was a theme throughout the talk. Page recounted how when he was trying to simplify things at Google, he suggested the company take all of its rules and regulations and keep them at an easy-to-digest 50 pages. He even suggested a similar idea to the president of South Korea, Park Geun-hye. "I said, 'Hey, why don't you just limit your laws and regulations to some set of pages? And when you add a page, you have to take one away.' She actually wrote this down. She's great."

Finally, Page answered a question from Khosla about what it was like to transition from being CEO of the company, to passing those reins to Eric Schmidt (now executive chairman), to then taking them back again. Page said he learned a tremendous amount from Schmidt, that they had run the place effectively as a team, and that there is no right answer for every company.

"Some people are good at starting things, not good at finishing things. And I think organizations have trouble recognizing that, too, and those are difficult transitions for people. In general, if you have a project or company and it can have stable leadership over 20 years, that's better than not."

 

Read also:

Sharing the news when a CEO is sick

Leadership skills for the year 2030

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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Jena McGregor | July 3