"Can we start just 15 minutes later?"

I couldn't believe I was actually asking this question. I was working on a story about Google when my contact offered an amazing opportunity: an exclusive interview with Google and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai.

There was only one problem: The time they offered conflicted with a very important personal appointment--one I couldn't reschedule. 

"Why don't you just ask if they can start later," my wife suggested. "I know he's 'the CEO of Google.' And I'm sure he's extremely busy. But you could give it a try."

Umm ... OK. So, I did.

A few minutes later, I got my reply: 

"No problem! Totally understand. Let me check ... "

Followed a few hours later by: 

"Sounds like Sundar can do that time tomorrow! Will send a calendar invite shortly."

Wow. I hadn't met Pichai yet, but I was struck by a few things from this initial interaction:

  • The fact that Pichai was so willing to accommodate my request
  • How polite my contact at Google was to me, and respectful the company was of my time
  • How she (my contact) spoke about and referred to Pichai, respectful yet friendly

These were great examples of emotional intelligence at work. And although the focus of my conversation would be on Google's new certificate program (which you can read here), Pichai stayed on to answer some questions on empathetic leadership and psychological safety.

Here are the highlights of that conversation.

Leadership is decision making

Pichai has admitted that he was a little surprised when first asked to take over as CEO of one of the most famous companies in the world.

"Stepping back, it's been a true privilege," says Pichai. 

But when asked for lessons learned since taking over the helm, his first response is interesting. Namely, that the biggest part of his job isn't making major decisions.

It's moving the needle.

"There are very few decisions that are extremely high stakes, where mistakes are going to have major consequences," explains Pichai. "It's the incremental decisions that lead to progress."

With an organization this large (Google's parent company, Alphabet, currently has more than 130,000 employees), Pichai says it's easy for issues to get stuck in stasis, especially if those issues are complex. Discussion after discussion, with no decisions, keeps a company from advancing on its goals. 

Pichai's job is to keep that from happening. He learned how to do so from his mentor, business executive and former Columbia University football coach Bill Campbell. (Campbell passed away in 2016.)

Campbell taught that one of the primary jobs of a leader is to "break ties"--to make the decision when fellow executives or colleagues are at a stalemate.

"Coach Campbell always used to ask me: Are you breaking ties? What ties did you break this week?" explains Pichai.

"Leadership is decision making. Moving things forward."

Empower your people

Over the years, I've pored over Google's work on psychological safety, the concept that people work best when they feel safe to take risks around fellow team members--confident that they won't get punished for voicing an idea, admitting a mistake, or even asking a question.

One of the best places to build a psychologically safe environment is in team meetings. So I was curious to hear how Pichai ran his own meetings at Google and Alphabet.

"I've had to rethink a lot in the context of virtual meetings," Pichai says. "Virtual meetings are harder, because everyone's looking at the person leading the meeting. And while some naturally participate, others hold back. I try to bring those people in, to make sure everyone participates."

This is so key, because to get the most out of your team, you need all the voices--including the quiet, introverted ones--especially those that offer an alternative perspective or contrarian view. Feedback like that should push teams to at least consider going in another direction. And even when the decision is to remain on the current path, those voices can help the team refine its work and clarify its messaging.

But how exactly does Pichai get those quiet voices to speak up?

"I'll actually go around the table, one by one, and ask people to clearly state their position," says Pichai. "This helps everyone not only to feel heard, but also to feel that they have a stake in the outcome."

Pichai describes the process of running Google as "a long journey." Over the years, he's learned that his objectives had to change.

"You're not just a manager," Pichai says. "You're a coach, trying to get the best out of others. It's about empowering other people to succeed ... To lead effectively, you have to understand the person you're working with, not just the role they play."

He continues, "You've got to ask questions. Get to know their family situation. Form a deeper bond."

In our brief interaction, I found Pichai to be extremely intelligent and ready to share invaluable experience--yet naturally curious and a great listener. He was humble, gracious, and unassuming: the complete opposite of what you'd expect a stereotypical, high-powered CEO to be. 

You know, like somebody you could ask to shift your meeting time with--just to take care of a personal appointment.

And that's emotional intelligence at its best.