This story is part of the Behind the Desk series, where CNBC Make It gets personal with successful business executives to find out everything from how they got to where they are, to what makes them get out of bed about the morning to their daily routines
In terms of career performance, it’s hard to top Eric Schmidt.
A self-written software “nerd” from Falls Church, Virginia, Schmidt was hired as Google chairman and later CEO by co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin in 2001 to provide some “adult supervision” to their growing web search engine. At the time, Schmidt was only 46 years old – but already an experienced tech executive with top positions at Novell and Sun Microsystems on his resume.
He served as Google’s CEO until 2011 and helped transform the company from a young Silicon Valley start-up into a global technology giant with a market value today of more than $ 1.8 trillion. He remained as CEO until 2017 and technical advisor until 2020.
At the moment, Schmidt is the world’s 66th richest person with a net worth of about $ 23 billion, according to Forbes – so it’s easy to forget how small Google was when he arrived at the site.
“The company was 100 people, and I did not particularly believe in the advertising model,” Schmidt, 66, told CNBC Make It. Even as CEO, he says, he had no idea how much Google could grow: “I just really liked the people.”
Instead of pushing some grandiose plan to make the startup a giant, he says, he focused on his own individual strengths – being a workaholic, having a passion for building things and leaning on his own likeability. The last move, he says, made people underestimate him at times.
“I’ve always enjoyed the assumption that I was a nice guy and not a very good businessman. So my schtick was: I was always the cutest person in the room,” Schmidt says, adding that if you use that strategy, “can you I better be able to back it up with real rigor, right result and real decision making.”
As for Google, the rest is history. Today, Schmidt is focused on his non-profit organization Schmidt Futures, which funds major idea research in areas such as artificial intelligence, biology and energy. Last year, he co-authored the book, “The Age of AI,” as a roadmap for what the future of technology might look like.
Here, Schmidt discusses the building of a successful career, the work of Steve Jobs, his biggest mistake at Google and how he handles criticism.
About building a successful career: ‘Happiness is the first and most important thing I had’
I think everyone in my position should start by saying that luck is the first and most important thing I had. Birth luck, education, interest, timing and the business I 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 leader, promoted pretty quickly. I describe myself as a workaholic. Most people are not workaholics, thank God.
The most successful people have a lot of skills, and also gravel. I do not 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 a very long time for me to understand who I was and what I was good at. It is important to become familiar with who you are and how you behave and react, because there is so much criticism and pressure today, especially for young people.
How Steve Jobs Affected His Leadership Style: He ‘Was Not a Normal Person in Any Way’
Steve Jobs, with whom I worked very closely [Jobs recruited Schmidt to be on Apple’s board from 2006 to 2009] and much admired, was by no means a normal person.
When he was “on”, his charisma and insight were so extraordinarily better than anyone else’s that he was able to overcome any disabilities with the way he treated people. People admired him so much.
If you look at history, great leaders have this unique ability to inspire people on a personal basis. The important thing is not whether you are flapbar or low-key, but whether you can inspire people to participate and get excited about changing the world.
[Personally]I learned that having teens is important. 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. Then put your foot down. Everything is fine until that is not the case, in which case we must act quickly.
It’s a pretty good leadership style. But I would not say that there is only one leadership style.
By building 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 my partners. Larry, Sergey and I wanted these big food fights about this or that. We would honestly disagree. But there was never a moment when I doubted their commitment to the company and the cause.
If the two agreed, I would usually just say “yes”. If they disagreed, I would force a process in which the three of us came to some conclusion. Usually, their ideas were better than mine.
[When I started at Google] I did not understand the scope of the business and I had no idea what was possible. I would have been suspicious if you told me that [how big Google would get]. In hindsight, I did not want to change anything – but we made many mistakes along the way.
I think the biggest mistake I made as CEO was about social media: Google was in social media early on, but did not execute it very well. The timing of the entry into these platform markets that are about to explode is incredibly important. Even being a few months early makes a huge difference with the right product.