How to channel your inner CEO?

My View on Five Motivational Factors of Top Tech Executives

If you haven’t heard of Google’s restructuring into Alphabet, the only excuse could be laying on the beach and sipping margaritas. And if you haven’t heard of “purple squirrels,” those highly efficient and talented executives every company is desperate for, and who are as rare as real purple squirrels, you might want to check urban dictionary.

This week I randomly came across discussions around both. But how random was it? The key topic the entire tech community is chatting about; what does Google’s shake-up really mean and why did the company do it? Among many reasons, one stands out: talent retention.

It’s no secret that the tech companies in Silicon Valley are hungry for engineering talent, especially in top management. And when we talk of those on top, for whom money is no longer a factor, the stakes and rules in this “tap and retain” game become mind-blowing.

So what if Google is creating a “company of companies” just to have more CEO roles for “purple squirrels”? Keeping this question in mind, I started to think:

what motivates top tech execs to stay in a company?

Prominent Role

In Russian, there is a saying: Would you prefer to be the first guy in the village or the second in the city? Translating this to Silicon Valley language, would you prefer being a chief engineer in one of the world’s biggest corporations, or a CEO in a smaller company?

I’m sure that Sundar Pichai, the new CEO of Google inside Alphabet, was not falling for the nice line on the business card. But let’s be honest, there are some corporate titles that are more prestigious than others. Those signature roles take you to the apex of an industry. And CEO of Google is one of them.

Offering Sundar Pichai this role was timely from Google’s perspective, and wise, as Business Insider hints. Pichai was a key target for Twitter recruiters actively looking for the company’s new CEO. And even before that, Google’s top Android guy was rumored to be shortlisted for Microsoft’s chief executive position.

But what’s as important is that Google (or Alphabet, to be precise) created a powerful motivational tool. Now it can take even more companies under its umbrella and retain essential personnel with top titles. Could that be effective? Yes. But would Alphabet be able to serve the needs of everyone striving for a big title?

Professional Challenge

Apple’s Jony Ive is, by no doubt, the biggest fish in the sea of technology design. And yet, he remains loyal to the company even after Steve Jobs passed away. This is also a “title” story, you might say, as Ive recently received a C-level position at Apple (Chief Executive Designer). But the people who know Ive well, describe him to be as ego-free as one could imagine.

For the most influential designer in the world, there could be another motivation: professional challenge. I can only guess what that could be. Maybe the Apple Watch? Some say Ive was given carte blanche for that. Or could it be Apple’s new gigantic campus? At the current Apple HQ, even elevator buttons are designed by Ive. Or maybe the Apple Car, as 9to5Mac says.

Individual Ownership

Susan Wojcicki, Google’s 16th employee, represented a sensitive management problem for a while. Before 2014, she was sharing responsibilities in managing Google’s commercial projects with another executive, Shridar Ramaswamy. At the same time, Wojcicki, one of the most prominent women in the tech industry, was keen on running her own initiatives.

In order to prevent her from leaving Google for a VC or CEO role elsewhere (or, perhaps, to secure the opportunity to use her garage, like in Google’s early days), the company gave her a position of YouTube CEO. Again, this is far from a simple title. Video is a centerpiece of online data consumption, and Wojcicki is determined to build an empire on the momentum.

My biggest question in this story is why wasn’t she given an area of ownership earlier? The tech industry definitely has room to grow in terms of diversity. In fact, even Russia has a higher rate of female corporate leadership than the U.S.

Ultimate Power

Speaking of diversity, I can’t overlook the wonderful story of Marissa Mayer. She has set a standard for female execs in Silicon Valley: a successful career and happy family life. But as VentureBeat claims, the one thing Mayer didn’t have at Google — power — seduced her to trade her role at the successful Google for the C-suite at the struggling Yahoo.

Whether it was internal conflict or Mayer’s personal ceiling at Google, we can only guess. Yahoo’s potential resurrection proves her skills as a leader and visionary who needed empowerment. Some even believe that the story of Marissa Mayer leaving for Yahoo taught Google leaders a lesson of timely promoting execs — and played its part in Wojcicki’s case.

But for Mayer this power is a double-edged sword. Do you truly have power when the whole industry judges you through two lens: can you or can’t you? I guess for some people, this is motivational. And the most powerful leaders are usually the most self-critical.

Emotional Balance

Work-life balance has quickly became commonplace in the language of business. From my personal experience, in Silicon Valley work-life balance is a sweet spot for the middle-class. The higher you get, the less you think of this as a reality. The aforementioned Marissa Mayer is known for 130-hour work weeks. That is quite understandable, as she is in that top tier of executives. And here comes the last motivational factor: emotional balance.

If David Marcus had not left PayPal for Facebook last year, he would have been the CEO of a large publicly-traded company. But he publicly claimed that he didn’t want that. Instead he preferred innovating within Facebook. As he stated in The Street:

“Running a very large public company … is actually way overrated. A lot of public company CEOs out there are fairly unhappy, they just don’t speak about it. I think the social pressure when you’ve dedicated your life to reaching that point is such that you’re addicted to the power … and you stay there being unhappy,”

Working in Silicon Valley comes with stress, like coffee with cream. For some, keeping up with those stress levels is a matter of personal pride. But I think that it takes courage and self-determination to claim your right to both professional and personal success. Maybe, after money, titles, professional challenges and empowerment, true work-life balance is the new source of motivation.

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