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Google out of China: Responsible Leadership in Action

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Google China HQ

AP Photo/Vincent Thian

Whatever you might think about Google, it’s difficult to find fault with the company’s decision to stop censoring search engine results in China. In doing so, the company has given the country—and the rest of the world—a clear signal that it considers some things more important than building its business. That’s a message that’s all too rare in this day and age, and the company’s leadership deserves to be commended for it.

At this stage in the news cycle, the saga likely requires very little retelling: trouble first began brewing when Google discovered evidence that Chinese authorities had been hacking the Gmail accounts of human rights activists, and responded with a threat to end censorship of search results in China. Relations with the country’s officials deteriorated from there, and the company finally acted on its threat yesterday.

An article in PC World points out that the situation is more than just a spat: by walking away from the most populous nation on Earth, Google is flying “in the face of common wisdom,” which “holds that no company can afford to ignore, let alone walk away from, China.” Common wisdom also holds, however, that increasing the amount of business done in the country will increase the freedoms of its citizens—a concept that Google’s experience there flatly contradicts.

Whether or not your business has dealings with China, there’s a key message for other leaders and executives: there are more important things than common wisdom and the quest for profits. Whether it’s personal ideals or part of a corporate ethos, there will be times where your beliefs clash with the people you need to keep happy to get the deal done. In each case, it’s up to the individual to decide how much—if any—of their beliefs they are willing to compromise for the sake of a business opportunity. That’s an idea that Google CEO Eric Schmidt regularly espouses, and has clearly taken to heart.

Of course, not every business is Google-sized, and the majority of leaders don’t have the kind of revenue cushion that Google’s do to steel their nerve when making decisions that may hurt their business.  That, however, is part of the test—and something that separates great leaders from the rest of the pack.

In a nutshell, the difference between the two is that average leaders see opportunities and capitalize on them. For most companies, most of the time, that’s enough. In a situation where a company’s ethos clashes with its business direction, however, an average leader caves to the demands of the marketplace in return for greater market share or better profits. While that may work in the short term—or on a one-off basis—it sets a precedent where company culture is always up for grabs, and malleable depending on the situation. One way in which great leaders differ is in being prepared to walk away from potential growth and riches if the means to acquiring those threatens the core values of the organization.

It’s quite clear—to this observer at least—which side of the equation the Google decision falls on. While it may turn out to have no effect whatsoever on the freedom of information in China, it does live up to the company’s oft-maligned motto of “don’t be evil”.  As over the top as that may be, it’s certainly a handy mantra for any current or aspiring exec to bear in mind—especially when the time comes for difficult decisions in your own career.

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Written by Phil Stott

March 24, 2010 at 12:35 pm

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