‘Ottawa’ ‘Reinvent Things and Push the Boundaries’: Patrick Pichette, Google Advisor and Former CFO
Patrick Pichette, 53, is an adviser to Google Inc. and on the board of Bombardier Inc., and of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, a non-partisan charity. In addition, he’s on the advisory board of start-ups such as: Mountain View, California-based electric skateboard company Boosted Boards; Zambia-based Zoona, a mobile money platform; and Nairobi-based ecommerce business OkHi.
Pichette retired from his position as the chief financial officer and senior vice president of Google in May 2015 in order to travel with his wife Tamar. He held the positions for about seven years.
He previously worked for telecom provider Bell Canada and the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. He has a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Université du Québec à Montréal and a master’s degree in philosophy, politics and economics from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar from 1987 to 1989.
Pichette was born and raised in Montreal and is currently based in Palo Alto, California. He’s married and has three adult children – two sons and one daughter.
He spoke to Karl Moore, a professor of strategy and organization at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University.
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Q: You made headlines around the world last year when you announced you were stepping aside from being Google’s CFO. Why did you decide to leave?
A: I didn’t want to leave Google. I mean, I’m still an advisor to the company. I wanted a sabbatical. Google is an unconventional company and I’m an unconventional individual – I recognize that.
My wife and I were on the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania early one morning and the first thing that popped into our minds, while we were having a cup of tea looking at the Serengeti, was: Wow, the rest of Africa is at our feet – why are we going back to work now? Why not explore? There should still be 25 years of fun ahead…
Q: I just finished reading Lazlo Bock’s Work Rules! book, which is to a large degree about Google’s culture. The theory is that what the Silicon Valley and Google are doing today, we’ll be doing in Toronto and Montreal in five years. Is that true?
A: I actually couldn’t disagree more. I think there is innovation everywhere. In the Valley, they’re good at marketing it because it’s part of the buzz to attract people.
Q: What can Google and the Valley teach Canadians?
A: Here’s what I think Google taught me and the Valley is teaching the world. First, I think it takes the same amount of effort to make something five times better as 10 times better, so if you’re going to work hard you might as well go for 10 times better, every time.
The second thing applies specifically to the software industry, but I think it’s applicable to many things because of the digital economy. If someone showed me a business model for funding and it didn’t start with a billion people, I wouldn’t look at it. Why waste time?
These are the two big lessons. Reinvent things and push the boundaries to be completely different. By the way, ask yourself, why not create products and services that the whole world will benefit from?
If you go through some of the products that we’ve developed during my tenure at Google, we had just bought Android, the Chrome Browser, YouTube… you go down the list and that’s the mindset. I think it’s incredibly powerful and liberating, and so much fun.
We need more venture capital in Canada
Q: There’s a group called C100 down in the Valley that’s saying Canadians should stay in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. How do we get companies to stay here?
A: I couldn’t agree with the C100 more, I’m an adviser to them and they’re absolutely right. At the end of the day, there is no need to be in the Silicon Valley. There’s a buzz there – no doubt about it – but there are a lot of really good entrepreneurs in Canada. We have such great talent here, but the minute they have the opportunity, they see the $3 million, the $5 million – which is a lot of money – they cash out. They let go of the chance to build a billion dollar opportunity.
We need to tell people you don’t need to go to the Valley, you can stay at home and, by the way, keep your company. This ties to my second point, which is we need more venture capital in Canada. I think that everyone is recognizing this, and there’s more to be done on that front.
Q: What advice do you have for people starting out now?
A: Your objective function matters immensely. If you want to make money, and that’s really what you want to do, that’s one thing. Or, you might have a passion for other matters – if you want to solve cancer, or solve some inequities, for example. It starts with your goal.
Then you should consider the forces of globalization, which will continue to grow unabated, and the forces around the digital economy, which are going at absolute lighting speed. These are the ingredients. People should think globally and think about how the digital economy can be a lever.
Q: What are key lessons you took away from your time at McKinsey, where you started out?
A: First, your industry is really your destiny. It really sets your foundations for what your degrees of freedom are.
Second, your CEO is your culture. I know it sounds like a generalized statement, but the CEOs’ style permeates the entire company all the way to the front line.
The last lesson for me was that people are everything. At the end of the day, there are very few differentiators in an industry other than people. I found that finding the best and the brightest, and fit, is very important for the success of any company. It has to be a huge part of the agenda for the CEO and the executive suite.
The world is so small and it’s shrinking
Q: What are some things you learned in the past months since you’ve been meandering the world?
A: The world is so small and it’s shrinking. Our human footprint is devastating this planet. We just went to Antarctica. People go there believing it’s a last frontier, but people went there in the early 19th Century and just absolutely emptied the place. Antarctica is a place in recovery. It’s absolutely astounding when you realize that. It’s beautiful to see, but it’s also a lesson.
The other thing I’ve learned is that people give me comfort. I’ve done a lot of professional travel but that was always the same thing – staying at the Hilton and eating the same club sandwich. Now, I can go out on the street and be washed up in all these other people and just enjoy the world – as it should be. People are wonderful and this planet is to be celebrated.
Q: You’re lucky to be able to travel so much. Of course, it must help to have money and that your kids are all grown up…
A: Yes, however, I’d argue you don’t need that much money. I think people put an artificial barrier into their minds. My wife and I travel the world and it’s true, we have a credit card so that if there is a real screw-up we can just put it on the plastic, but we travel with our backpacks. I have 25 pounds on my back and that’s all of my possessions. We wait for the bus like everybody else and we’re just loving it.
We’re with every kid that’s flying around the world on a budget. We don’t couch-surf, so we kind of go high-end and Airbnb the whole thing – but you don’t need anything to be happy. We just came back from Patagonia and I’m on my way in a few weeks to go trekking in the Alps and rock climbing. These activities cost nothing and they show you the best of the world.
Q: What big projects are you working on right now?
A: I’m coming back regularly to Canada for three key reasons. One, is the Trudeau Foundation, which I’ve been serving for many years. Second, I joined Bombardier a couple of years ago. And the third is that two-and-a-half years ago, we along with three other Canadian families and the Nature Conservancy of Canada purchased this big property just between Montreal and Ottawa called Kenauk.
It’s 26,000 hectares (100 square-miles) of private land, and we’re among a small number of owners in 400 years, including: Francois de Laval, the first bishop of New France; Louis-Joseph Papineau; the Canadian Pacific Railway, and now these families and the Nature Conservancy.
The hope is basically to protect this massive piece of land forever. It’s currently an outfitter for hunting and fishing, and we want to develop it in a way that everybody in the community can participate and enjoy it, but really make sure that this never gets developed.
I’ve always been more green-ish, but I do it now with much more gusto
Q: What is your passion today?
A: I’m a sucker for learning. I just can’t stop… Another great benefit of being on vacation is I can read. I’m catching up on 25 years of reading. And I think I’ve become more aware of our environment. I’ve always been more green-ish, but I do it now with much more gusto because I recognize that we’re not doing enough for our future generations. It is our duty to actually push on this agenda.
Q: What are your favourite books right now?
A: If you want to laugh, read David Thorne’s The Internet is a Playground. If you want to cry, read Elizabeth Kolbert’s Sixth Extinction. And if you want something very thoughtful, Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God.
And I’m going back to school as well, so I’m reading a book on quantum mechanics by Brian Cox, who’s a BBC journalist. Also, I’ve been reading The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins and all this other stuff.
Q: Who is your biggest inspiration these days?
A: I get my inspiration from people who all share one thing – they are committed, 200 per cent, to what they do. They are crazy about what they do on one side and they are very human in the way they do it.
For example, James Cook who was born in Yorkshire, learned his trade and then took off on this little boat when he was told: ‘Go map the world.’ He came back three-and-one-half years later and he invented the diet that prevented people from having scurvy.
For the same reason, I have admiration for Wayne Gretzky. He’s the Great One because he’s 200 per cent out there. And I have the same admiration for Warren Buffet. He tells the world – this is a game. He gives all his wealth away. That is, to me, the true sign of a great leader.
This interview has been condensed and edited from the CEO Series, which can be heard on CJAD and other Bell Media stations across Canada. The full interview will be aired on the CEO Series in the autumn on: http://www.cjad.com/TheCEOSeries/aspx