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Ideas Made to Matter


Why Eric Schmidt focuses on individuals for the good of the team


Let’s say you have a poor-performing employee at your office, and everyone wants that person gone. If you’re Eric Schmidt, the question isn’t whether or not to fire them; it’s who are you going to replace them with?

“Everybody gets so worked up about the poor performance of this employee, but in fact that’s not the right question,” said the former Google CEO during a Feb. 6 Innovation Leadership Series event at MIT Sloan. “The right question is, ‘Are you better off?' 'How will you get there?' 'How do you do it?'"

That approach to decision-making was one of four leadership principles Schmidt highlighted during his talk. He is currently the technical adviser to Google parent company Alphabet, leads the National Security Commission of Artificial Intelligence, and joined MIT in 2018 as a visiting fellow and adviser for the MIT Quest for Intelligence. The institute-wide initiative studies human and machine intelligence.

Schmidt encouraged students to decide what kind of leader they want to be in an environment where companies must move fast amid uncertainty.

“My model is pretty simple: Have a coach or be a coach, work with your team, get the best idea — not necessarily the consensus idea — do it through a trust model, and keep it together,” Schmidt said. “That will build enormous wealth — intellectual wealth, financial wealth, creative wealth — in whatever you’re trying to do.”

Value people and make them feel valued

Whether they're an executive at a software company or an adviser in the White House, everyone needs to know they’re appreciated, Schmidt said.

Schmidt recalled when he went to work at Sun Microsystems in the early 1980s, he walked past a boardroom where executives were screaming at each other. He said he worried that he’d chosen the wrong company, where people just yell at one another.

He eventually realized that those executives in the boardroom were still individuals; with their own ambitions and competitiveness, even among one another.

The same goes for the current and previous White House administrations. There are senior officials and experts in their fields, but if a political battle is lost, Schmidt said, “somebody’s got to go value them and say ‘You tried your best.’” 

Concept of consensus

A decision with no debate is a “king” model of leadership, but a debate with no decision is just a university, Schmidt said, drawing laughter from the audience.

“The best standard now in management is to have a model as the leader where you let everybody talk, but you ultimately force a decision,” he said. “You want to get to a point where everybody feels heard.”

Schmidt said as the executive in a meeting, he’ll call on the people who aren’t speaking; inevitably, their answers are better because they’ve been listening. He said he also prefers larger meetings with a lot of people. That’s so everyone can observe and debate a decision that needs to be made. While they might not agree with the final result, he said, people are able to participate in the process.

Two reasons for trust

When it comes to being a leader or coach of a team, you have to have the trust of your employees for two reasons, Schmidt said.

First, employees need a coach they can trust to give them a different point of view on how they’re doing their work. Second, employees need to believe their coach is looking out for them — even those who lose an argument — while also keeping the overall team together, and moving forward in a positive way. A way to gain this trust, Schmidt said, is by building communities in your office.

Find time for social gatherings and invest in creating real experiences. Even something like taking everyone to a sporting event can establish trust, he said. 

Team first

In the tech industry, you often find minds that are both brilliant and arrogant, Schmidt said, and you have to be careful in telling the difference between those who are out for themselves and those who are acting on the best interests of the company.

Build a team with people who have a team-first mindset, and then act as a trusted coach to them. 

“We call this ‘fight for the divas, and get rid of the knaves,’” Schmidt said. “Steve Jobs is an example of a brilliant diva. These are perfectionists and they care a lot, but they fundamentally work with other people. Whereas knaves are busy assassinating the other people.”