Servant Leadership

The recent announcement by Google that they are reorganizing into a holding company called Alphabet which will hold operating companies for each of their products struck me for a number of reasons. In particular the letter that CEO Larry Page released detailing the reasoning demonstrated a number of key things that keep Google successful.

1. They have stayed true to their core

In the letter Larry outlines that they set out with the intention that “Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one.” The letter demonstrates to me that Google is not a conventional company. It is not a stuffy, formal letter written by lawyers or a PR firm designed to be as inoffensive as possible while still raising the share price of Google. It is a real letter, written by real person, expressing their real feelings, in natural language.  He says things like “Sergey and I have been super excited about his progress and dedication to the company” and “Susan is doing a great job as CEO” and “We are still trying to do things other people think are crazy but we are super excited about.” Apparently if Larry Page is one thing, he’s super excited!

2. They demonstrate servant leadership

Servant leadership is the concept that the leader of an organization is there to ensure that their people have the tools, empowerment, and opportunities under which to perform their best.

Robert Greenleaf, the guy that coined the phrase, describes it this way

A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.


Larry Page demonstrates his dedication to this type of philosophy in the section of the letter where he describes Sundar Pichai, the new CEO of Google. He says “I have been spending quite a bit of time with Sundar, helping him and the company in any way I can, and I will of course continue to do that.” Then later when describing all the CEOs of their business lines “In general, our model is to have a strong CEO who runs each business, with Sergey and me in service to them as needed.” It must be a powerful feeling to know that the CEO of one of the largest companies in history is “in service” to you!

3. Flexible and innovative

We work with companies every day that are small or medium sized (<500 people) that have the speed and bureaucracy of a large company. It’s almost as if they adopt bureaucracy and rigid multi-layered org structures as way to to  demonstrate that they are a “real’ company. This recent article by Sam Altman (of Y Combinator) really highlights the benefits of staying nimble and being a “project” instead of a “company”. While I would never call a multi-billion dollar enterprise a “project” Google does have the spirit of flexibility and adaptability that many companies lack.


Overall I’m really impressed by Google’s switch, by the subtle messages they convey in their letter to investors and I hope that they can hold on to their core values in the long run. The real test will come when Larry Page, Sergey Brin, and Eric Schmidt are no longer leading the charge.

Gender bias and STEM subjects

This ad about women and girls in science is making the rounds on social media today and while I don’t usually share advertising pieces I do think that this one is worth discussing.

In an era when kids can switch the gender on their birth certificates traditional gender roles are increasingly being broken down. The video/ad linked above encourages us to think about the way we talk to our girls and the implicit expectations that we set for them. As the father of two toddlers (one boy, one girl) these implicit expectations are something that I keep in mind for both of my children, regardless of their gender.

While I agree that we should be mindful of what we say to girls and avoid setting implicit expectations that they should all become princesses, I also think that the message in the video is a little patronizing toward women. Why do we never see ads about the implicit expectations and roles for boys? The video ad highlights the small number of women that major in engineering (22% here in Alberta) but we never hear about the lower number of men that major in nursing (10% at Johns Hopkins).

I realize that it may seem strange or unnecessary to point out the lack of support for gender equality for men, but my point is this: if the goal is to break down implicit gender stereotypes and roles beginning at childhood, shouldn’t we do this equally for all genders?

“Where” is a key question

A coworker of mine recently forwarded an email newsletter to that he thought would be interesting. The newsletter was for a small company that offered a wilderness venue for events such as retreats, offsites, weddings, and family gatherings. The newsletter was interesting enough that I actually clicked-through to see their full site and was pleased to see nice photos, good descriptions, and a fairly clear picture of what they offered.

However, one of the key things was missing – I couldn’t find where they were! Their site didn’t have a business address listed, nor did it have an embedded map, or even large heading with a short description underneath it. For me, where a service provider is located is one of the first questions I ask, and if the answer can’t be easily found then I am inclined to move on to another competitor who will tell me where they are.

“Where” is a key question for many consumers, and the answer has implications on their likelihood of purchasing the product or service. Even in an era of increasing globalization people want to know where their products are coming from, if only because this tells them how long they’ll take to ship. Looking at a business like this wilderness venue, “where” is a  critical question to the buying process. I’m located in Calgary and it makes a difference to me if your venue is located in Bragg Creek vs Nordegg vs 100 Mile House.

“Where” is just as important as the other key questions: (who, what, when, why, and how) and as consumers are now more location aware than ever it is a critical question to be answering.