As Google plays catchup to OpenAI and Microsoft, CEO Sundar Pichai finds himself in the hot seat for fumbling the company’s lead in AI. It has some people questioning his leadership.
When co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin announced that they were leaving their day-to-day roles at Google parent Alphabet in 2019, handing Sundar Pichai the keys to the kingdom, they mused about Google’s age.
“If the company was a person, it would be a young adult of 21 and it would be time to leave the roost,” they wrote. “We believe it’s time to assume the role of proud parents—offering advice and love, but not daily nagging!”
Four years later, as Google faces incursions from AI rivals dead set on dethroning the company’s iconic search business, the absent parents have returned home. Microsoft, a once-dormant rival, has sprung to life with a new version of Bing, aided by OpenAI, the upstart maker of the generative AI bot ChatGPT. As the chatbot began to make waves, Page and Brin, who became advisors for the company after leaving their official positions, started to take a more active role: They attended AI strategy meetings. Brin got hands-on with code.
The re-emergence of the founders, as well as the fumbling of Google’s consumer AI efforts, has shaken the confidence of some in the guy in charge: the mild-mannered Pichai, who once graced the cover of Bloomberg Businessweek hugging a stuffed Android as “Google’s Soft Power.” Rivals, investors, and industry observers are wondering whether Pichai is the CEO that can navigate the company through what seems to be developing into an existential crisis.
With the company’s army of engineers and researchers, AI was Google’s game to lose. It’s still early, but now Google finds itself in the unlikely position of playing from behind in a field it helped pioneer—a deficit that some have blamed on leadership.
“Sundar is a very strong operator, but not as much of a strategic thinker and visionary,” Nimrit Kang, co-chief investment officer of Northstar Asset Management, which holds about $20 million in Alphabet stock, told Forbes. Kang said the company needs to “disrupt” itself, even if it means short-term pain, to set itself up for the long-term future. “We feel, from everything we’re seeing at least, Sundar is not that person.”
“We feel, from everything we’re seeing at least, Sundar is not that person.”
“Google’s board, including the founders, must ask: Is Pichai the right guy to run the company, or is it time for Sundar to go?” the veteran Silicon Valley writer Om Malik wrote last month. “Does the company need a more offense-minded CEO? Someone who is not satisfied with [the] status quo, and willing to break some eggs?” After Malik’s post, respected tech analyst Ben Thompson also gave credence to the question, broaching it in his widely-read blog Stratechery. Googlers have anonymously mused about it on the platform Blind, under the post “Will Sundar Pichai be ousted?”
“I think Sundar and the team got complacent,” said Dan Ives, managing director at Wedbush Securities. He said it’s too early in the AI competition to think about an executive change, but they need to alter their approach. “They’re going to need an army formed with leadership that goes after this market, because this is a game of high-stakes poker and so far they’re losing.”
Google declined to comment or make Pichai available for an interview.
Pichai has weathered this type of criticism before. Executives at Google have long grumbled about his apparent aversion for risk and slow decision-making, according to a New York Times profile of the CEO in 2021. At the time, Google defended Pichai by noting that internal surveys about his leadership were positive. But while Googlers have whispered their annoyances in the past, the chattering has become louder in recent weeks. The stakes are nearing a crescendo as rivals gun for Google’s sparkling search operation, one of the most efficient money-making machines in modern business. The questions also come as Google faces the morale blow of mass layoffs; Pichai laid off 12,000 workers, or 6% of the company, in January.
Still, Pichai is supremely respected around Google, and anyone who questions his leadership is quick to preface the criticism with remarks about how intelligent and impressive he is. Many of Pichai’s critics point to the dichotomy of the peacetime CEO and wartime CEO, a trope coined by the venture capitalist Ben Horowtiz in 2011. A peacetime CEO, he wrote, enjoys a “large advantage vs. the competition in its core market,” while a CEO at war is like a general “fending off an imminent existential threat.”
“He is the epitome, the quintessential, the pinnacle of peacetime CEO,” a former Google executive told Forbes. A former Google director put it even more bluntly: “We’re taking bets on how long it’s going to last,” the person said. “I think everybody agrees he will be gone. The question is just how long from now?”
“He is the epitome, the quintessential, the pinnacle of peacetime CEO.”
Pichai’s defenders value his even-keeled approach, especially with something as powerful as AI. With its trillion dollar market cap and billions of users, Google was always going to be in a more precarious spot than any startup with less to lose and fewer people to anger. Supporters say the company is still well-positioned to win the AI war, with years of machine learning research and development, decades of user data and a track record of scaling products. “Who’s to say he’s not a good wartime CEO?” one current Google employee said. “He hasn’t gone to war yet.”
The caution could prove to be prudent. Google has avoided some of the backlash directed toward Microsoft’s Bing after the chatbot began responding with violent and obsessive answers, as journalists and early testers sought to push the software’s boundaries. But even as Google has moved slower, it’s still been burned: After its chatbot Bard generated an incorrect answer during a promo video last month, further inflaming concerns about Google falling behind, the company lost $100 billion in market value.
Pichai’s rise has been a feel-good Silicon Valley story. Born in Chennai, India, he attended the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur. He moved to the U.S. in 1993 and earned master’s degrees from Stanford and Wharton. After graduating, he worked as a consultant for McKinsey before interviewing at Google on April 1, 2004, the same day the company launched Gmail.
At Google, he quickly ascended the ranks. He first served as a product manager in charge of the browser search bar, before pushing for Google to create its own browser, Chrome. In 2013, he took over Android from its now-disgraced creator Andy Rubin. Two years later, he was tapped to oversee Google’s entire portfolio of web products, including search, ads and maps. When the company restructured under Alphabet in 2015, Pichai took over Google. Four years later, he became CEO of the whole conglomerate.
Whereas Page and Brin were seen as visionaries—Page claims the idea for Google came to him in a dream—employees say Pichai is the practical leader who keeps the trains on schedule: talented and competent, but not necessarily inspiring. Instead of acting decisively, he often takes a more passive approach, people who worked with him say. One former executive calls him a “babysitter CEO.”
Once early in his tenure, Pichai convened a meeting between the leadership and senior staff of some of Google’s platforms, including Android head Hiroshi Lockheimer and Nest cofounder Tony Fadell, according to two people who attended the meeting. The various units had been jostling over which team would work on what project. “Sundar was literally brought in to broker the peace negotiations between the warring factions,” one attendee told Forbes.
The group met for three or four hours. Pichai listened to everyone’s point of view and asked some questions, but was mostly quiet. In the end, he told the platform leaders to work it out among themselves and report back, two attendees said, instead of giving clear direction. One of the attendees likened the situation to Game of Thrones. “He wanted to unite the kingdoms, and everyone respects Sundar so would bend the knee to him,” the person said. “But when the dragons come, he’s not going to know what to do.”
“When the dragons come, he’s not going to know what to do.”
Google declined to comment on the meeting. Fadell, who left the company in 2016, also declined to comment.
The episode is emblematic of the leadership style Pichai has imparted at the company. In 2018, a group of more than a dozen vice presidents reportedly sent Pichai an email that said the company took too long with big decisions, and that it was difficult to coordinate technical feedback. Some of the company’s sluggishness stems from Pichai’s demeanor, a former Google executive who worked with him told Forbes. “He doesn’t like conflict. He doesn’t like making unpopular decisions,” that person said. “It’s just a slow, lethargic place.”
Pichai is in a difficult position. Google is far from the scrappy startup Page and Brin founded in a Menlo Park garage in 1998. The company has more than tripled in size since he took over in 2015, ballooning to more than 190,000 full-time employees in December before layoffs.
That explosive growth comes with cultural shifts that can cause stagnation. Without naming Pichai specifically, Praveen Seshadri, a former Google engineer, called out company management last month for a bureaucratic atmosphere where people aren’t incentivized to go above and beyond. “Overall, it is a soft peacetime culture where nothing is worth fighting for,” Seshadri wrote in a 3,600-word essay.
“Google isn’t Googley anymore.”
In other words: “Google isn’t Googley anymore,” one laid off rank-and-file employee told Forbes. “I hesitate to put the blame or responsibility on Sundar, because he doesn’t project a strong voice of leadership one way or another,” they continued. But that viewpoint still doesn’t bode well for the CEO. “I’m not even sure I could say what his particular vision for the company is, apart from holding the market share we already have.”
Now that outlook has stung Pichai as rivals make a meaningful run at that market share for the first time in decades. Even after laying the groundwork for dominance in AI—Google researchers pioneered a breakthrough six years ago that undergirds chatbots like ChatGPT and Bing—Google was beaten to market during what is turning out to be a seminal moment for the future of AI. “His whole thing was a bet on AI-first. That was clearly his drumbeat,” said the former Google director. “And he hasn’t really done much.”
John Paczkowski contributed reporting.