Did Eric Schmidt Jump—Or Was He Pushed?

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It was a transition of power straight out of Pleasantville. Eric Schmidt stepped down from one of the world's most powerful Internet companies Thursday after ten years of explosive growth. "Larry is ready to lead," said Schmidt, in a nod to the company's 37-year-old co-founder. During the public conference call, Schmidt, Larry Page and co-founder Sergey Brin lavished ebullient praise on one another. "Eric has clearly done an outstanding job," Page said. A few moments later, Schmidt sent out a peppy little tweet, "Day-to-day adult supervision no longer needed!"

But surely there's more to the story. The company itself shrouded the transition in familiar corporate speak, calling it a move to "streamline decision making and create clearer lines of responsibility and accountability." Now, business and technology pundits are wondering if there's a side we haven't heard: Did Schmidt jump ship, or was he forced to walk the plank?

  • He Jumped  Schmidt has "career aspirations outside of Google," says Bianca Bosker at The Huffington Post. "Some speculate Schmidt will remain executive chairman only temporarily before pursuing a career in the public sector, a field in which he has previously demonstrated interest." She quotes Google biographer Ken Auletta who says "he jumped" and "won't stay that long" at the company.
  • He Was Pushed  Schmidt stepping down creates a "huge advantage" for Google, writes Danny Sullivan at Search Engine Land. "If Page is stepping up as the public face, it's an opportunity to defuse or put some of the gaffes associated with Schmidt behind the company. Page carries virtually no such baggage." MG Siegler at TechCrunch also thinks the departure was forced. "This is clearly Schmidt being removed from power," he writes. "It appears to be because things just weren’t getting done the way the company would have liked," alluding to progress in the social space.
He wrote a very long blog post on the official Google blog explaining what happened. Ousted CEOs aren’t allowed to write long blog posts. Mark Hurd wasn’t. Kallasvuo wasn’t. If you’re fired as CEO, you’re sent away with a large severance package and told to shut up if you want to keep it.

On his Twitter feed, Schmidt wrote: “Day-to-day adult supervision no longer needed!” And that’s exactly what’s happened here. Schmidt is stepping down so Larry and Sergey can run the company they founded.

  • It Could've Been Fatigue  After all, Schmidt was CEO for ten years, notes Juan Carlos Perez at Computer World. He raises the notion that Schmidt stepped down "voluntarily" after "an intense decade at the helm." Perhaps Page is just filling in temporarily until a new CEO is found.
  • Schmidt Was Upset He Lost the Google-China Debate, writes The New Yorker's Ken Auletta. When Google's founders decided to (partially) pull-out of China, Schmidt thought it was the wrong decision, writes Auletta. He says Schmidt felt that the Chinese market was too good to pass up and the company should cooperate with the Communist government. After losing that battle, Schmidt became somewhat disenchanted. Other problems at the company precipitated his stepping down:
Schmidt, according to associates, lost some energy and focus after losing the China decision. At the same time, Google was becoming defensive. All of their social-network efforts had faltered. Facebook had replaced them as the hot tech company, the place vital engineers wanted to work. Complaints about Google bureaucracy intensified. Governments around the world were lobbing grenades at Google over privacy, copyright, and size issues. The “don’t be evil” brand was getting tarnished, and the founders were restive. Schmidt started to think of departing. Nudged by a board-member friend and an outside advisor that he had to re-energize himself, he decided after Labor Day that he could reboot.

He couldn’t. By the end of the year, he was ready to jump on his own. He is fifty-five, a billionaire, a man comfortable in his own skin. He would stay a year as executive chairman, said an advisor, and then do something else.

  • If Tradition Holds, He'll Probably Leave the Company, writes Amir Efrati and Jessica Vascellaro at The Wall Street Journal. Schmidt is scheduled to become "executive chairman."

A CEO who becomes executive chairman typically holds that post for a year, and Mr. Schmidt likely will follow that pattern, said Dennis Carey, a vice chairman of search firm Korn/Ferry International. Mr. Schmidt, however, indicated he is staying put—at least for now. He said he and Messrs. Page and Brin will remain "a powerful triumvirate" and "best friends and partners."

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