By almost all standards, Google is in great shape. It had a fantastic fourth quarter, increasing revenue by 26% from Q4 2009. It is the undisputed leader in search, YouTube is on fire and Android is giving Apple a run for its money.
Under the surface though, things aren’t all sunshine and roses. Google Buzz and Google Wave were failures. At the same time, Facebook has emerged as a legitimate threat to Google and has been stealing Google’s best talent. It’s gotten so bad that Google gave everybody a 10% raise in a desperate bid to retain talent.
Perhaps that’s why Larry Page is replacing Eric Schmidt as CEO. There was nobody accountable at the top, and now Google risks losing big ground to Facebook and Apple. This is Larry Page’s company now.
Thanks to Schmidt, Google is efficient, but it has also lost its ability to come up with a clear vision and execute upon it. What it needs now is a visionary leader to take Google to new heights, much like Apple’s Steve Jobs and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg have done with their companies.
Google needs its own Steve Jobs, and it had better hope Larry Page is that man. Here’s why:
Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer and Steve Jobs
The graph below depicts the history of Microsoft’s stock price, starting from its 1986 IPO to today. In its entire history, the company has only had two CEOs: Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer. I’ve placed a line on the January 2000 mark to reflect when Bill Gates handed the reigns over to Steve Ballmer.
As you can see, Microsoft’s growth has stagnated since Ballmer has taken the helm. Gates, the visionary, was able to turn his company into a powerhouse by taking risks and creating groundbreaking products. Ballmer is an effective manager, but he is not a visionary.
Let’s be fair, though: when Ballmer took over, Microsoft was in the midst of a brutal antitrust investigation and the dot-com bubble. Plus, Gates was still at the company as the chief software architect and the keeper of the “technology vision” of the company. Still, he wasn’t calling the shots; Ballmer was.
Perhaps this is the more telling chart, though:
This is a graph depicting the changes in Microsoft and Apple’s market capitalizations over the last decade. In Q1 2001, Apple was worth a mere $7.64 billion, 1/38th the size of Microsoft’s massive $291.74 billion market cap.
As of this Friday, Apple is worth $300.92 billion. Microsoft, on the other hand, has dropped all the way down to $239.73 billion in market cap. The change in fortunes is absolutely astonishing.
When You Need a Visionary CEO
While there are thousands of factors that contributed to the decline of Microsoft and the rise of Apple, nobody can discount the impact their CEOs have had in the last decade.
Why was Steve Jobs declared “CEO of the Decade” by Fortune Magazine? It’s because he triumphantly returned to the company he founded, gave it a clear vision, and transformed Apple into one of the world’s most successful companies.
You don’t have to look far for visionary CEOs who’ve had a monstrous impact on their companies, either. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Oracle’s Larry Eliason, and Groupon’s Andrew Mason are just a few examples.
And it’s not just recently that visionary leaders that have changed the fates of their companies, either: Ford Motor Company’s Henry Ford, Standard Oil’s John Rockefeller and General Electric’s Thomas Edison redefined business, technology and industry in ways few others have.
It’s true that many companies don’t need visionary leaders. Sometimes a visionary isn’t an effective manager at a time when a company needs to focus on efficiency and not new products. However, visionaries are the best choice to take the helm when a company is first starting out, when it is out to redefine an industry or when it is stagnating or in decline.
Zuckerberg turned a young company into a $50 billion empire in less than a decade. Steve Jobs steered a company on the brink of bankruptcy to new heights. Henry Ford single-handedly created the modern automotive industry.
Is Larry Page the Visionary CEO Google Needs?
Now what about Google? Here’s what I said late last year when I declared Google Buzz tech’s biggest flop of 2010:
“With Google’s biggest attempt at social now a mere afterthought, nothing stands in Facebook’s way. The social network will eventually surpass its Silicon Valley rival both in terms of net worth and dominance of the web. Google will become the next Microsoft, profitable but unable to grow, and Facebook will become the next Google whose influence will be felt for years to come.”
Now, more than ever in its history, does Google need a visionary leader in the mold of Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs. Eric Schmidt, while one of the best CEOs and managers of all time, isn’t a visionary. The vision has always been with the founders, especially with Larry Page, its President of Products and soon-to-be CEO.
Earlier this week, I answered a question on Quora on the potential impact of Google’s leadership shake-up. Here’s what I said:
“Larry Page is the visionary of the three. He’s been President of Product because he’s usually the one who comes up with the visionary product ideas and has ta plan to turn that idea into reality.
It was never quite clear who was in charge before, but now nobody can dispute that the buck stops with Larry Page. While he won’t be CEO officially until April (blame paperwork/bylaws/transition time/new nameplates), Page is already, in a sense, acting CEO.
How does this affect product development? It’s going to accelerate, based on Larry’s vision and Sergey’s hands-on approach. Sergey’s going to push more new projects off the ground while Larry is going to help define the overarching goals and strategies, while getting the right people in place.”
Google needs a clearer vision from the top. If it can’t find a way to limit the influence of Facebook soon, it will become the next Microsoft (or, even worse, the next Yahoo). It has an advantage most companies in its position don’t have, though: It still has its founders.
For Google’s sake, let’s hope Larry Page is the visionary CEO that the company so desperately needs.