Pinned in the doorway of Eric Schmidt’s snug corner office in Mountain View, Calif., is a comic strip that neatly sums up what the longtime Google chief executive wants you to know about himself and the company.
The cartoon, custom-created for Mr. Schmidt, shows Google’s technology rivals making supposed apologies. There’s Facebook ’s Mark Zuckerberg saying, “Sorry…but we’re still right.” Then there’s Apple Inc.’s Tim Cook saying, “You’re holding it wrong.” Finally, there’s Mr. Schmidt, who says, “We screwed up. Sorry.”
This is the Google way, perfected under Mr. Schmidt: high-minded, self-assured and a little smug.
Mr. Schmidt says that his approach is derived from the many lessons he learned from his late mentor, the Silicon Valley management guru Bill Campbell: “If you make a mistake, admit it, and do it right now. And if you didn’t make a mistake, don’t admit it.”
.. While it is now de rigueur for startup founders to take on formal mentors, Mr. Campbell was the beta version of the trend, personally counseling Mr. Schmidt, Steve Jobs, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and many other Silicon Valley stars. A former Columbia University football coach who became a wealthy tech executive and adviser, Mr. Campbell was known for getting through to type-A people who might otherwise struggle to think of themselves as part of a team.
Mr. Schmidt credits Mr. Campbell for talking him off the cliff when he threatened to quit Google early on after being asked to relinquish his title of chairman. “Your pride is getting in the way,” Mr. Campbell told him, Mr. Schmidt recalls.
Later, Mr. Campbell helped to soften Mr. Schmidt’s edges as a boss. “Like, for you, I’d say: ‘You’re the best writer I’ve met in your generation,’ ” Mr. Schmidt says, with considerable overstatement. “Then I’d read something and say, ‘Well, you missed something, you could do better.’ Notice how because I’ve praised you, now you want to be a better person.”
.. When asked about Apple founder Steve Jobs, with whom Mr. Schmidt had a public falling-out over Google’s development of rival mobile software, Mr. Schmidt diplomatically observes, “When Steve was upset, he was loud.” He hastens to add: “Steve was a good friend, and I miss him terribly.”
Mr. Schmidt’s arrival on the self-help circuit comes amid a tide of leadership missives from wealthy entrepreneurs. The hedge-fund billionaire Ray Dalio has spent more than a year evangelizing his book of “Principles,” which tells employees to argue with one another and rank each others’ performance in real time. Mr. Schmidt, who says he knows Mr. Dalio well, calls that approach “sort of the extreme.” He prefers to deliver hard feedback behind closed doors. He says that he steered clear of Wall Street early in his career because “it wasn’t forgiving…it wasn’t tolerant.”