Leadership Rundown: Balancing innovation and empathy with Thomas Kurian

Seemingly by the minute, advances in AI, quantum, and machine learning are impacting every part of our lives—and they will lead to game-changing productivity breakthroughs. But this momentum also complicates the CEO’s role, as leaders can get caught up in chasing “the next big thing” at the expense of fundamentals that underpin a growing business.

I recently spoke with an executive who walks this tightrope daily. Since taking the helm in 2019, Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian has led the integration of groundbreaking technologies while always keeping customer and culture at the center. I was particularly struck by Thomas’s focus on “customer empathy”—a state of mind that pushes for such an innate understanding of your customer that you can see past what they want to what they truly need.

As you’ll see, this empathy is what powers breakthroughs in customer service that are just as powerful as breakthroughs in technology.

Thomas, can you share more on your vision for driving further adoption of cloud technologies?

Our vision is simple: we believe that software is increasingly powering every industry. Our goal with cloud computing is not only to provide the cloud capabilities that organizations need to become world-class leaders, but also to make it extremely convenient and cost-effective.

We constantly ask ourselves, “What are all the things impeding us from successfully partnering with the leading companies in the world?”

Looking back at your experience so far, what guiding principles have defined your journey? What can other leaders learn from your experience?

Ultimately, it boiled down to five key elements.

First, we had to define our value proposition and build out an enterprise sales organization that could help customers understand our technology.

Second, we had to deliver on these new capabilities with behind-the-scenes functions, such as customized contracts, that created a better customer experience.

Third, we designed for scale across our internal IT systems and core business processes, so we were building for thousands of customers at once. To match this investment, we had to assemble a team of people who led and managed this scale of organization.

Fourth, we had to build the right leadership. We tripled the size of our sales organization from 2019 to 2021. I remember saying, “We have to build ahead because we don’t want to hire people as we grow; we want to hire for scale.” We brought in the right leadership, and our success has largely come down to the quality of the people we have hired.

Finally, we developed our culture. Google has always had a great engineering culture, and we needed to build on this for an enterprise organization. We created a culture focused on customer empathy, which rewards and recognizes not just technical breakthroughs but also the application of those breakthroughs with customers.

Can you talk a little bit about your perspective on how businesses and governments capture value from AI?

We’re applying AI in three core places. One is to help automate core processes. For example, using AI instead of paper-based processes, while keeping a human in the loop, to process things like mortgage or loan approvals. The second is around data analytics. We’ve integrated our prediction capabilities into our data cloud to help companies look ahead to predict things like inventory needs so they can better serve customers.

And we’re also deploying new and transformative capabilities. For example, many hospitals are using our image recognition system, allowing doctors to more quickly detect tumors and scale this service. Or you can now collaborate with Google Slides to build personalized images. You can easily create a video with music that shows an athlete running through a forest. The details may seem novel, but the potential is staggering.

Overall, AI is meant to be assistive, partnering with a human to help build processes and support growth. We’ve invested in AI for more than 15 years at Google, and we’re excited to be bringing these capabilities to organizations.

Recent McKinsey Global Institute research shows that productivity in the United States has slowed despite massive technological innovations in the past 15 years or so. This is counterintuitive. With generative AI gaining steam, do you believe we’re in a moment when technology can help reclaim productivity growth in a meaningful way?

When I look at the McKinsey research, one of the most interesting learnings is that while the average productivity has not increased significantly, some areas have seen improvements. Some states and industries have fallen behind, while others have improved dramatically.

When we look to solve for this, first, we have to make sure the improvements in productivity are more evenly distributed. Second, when you look at the areas with significant progress, many have been driven by a large consumption of technology.

That prompts two questions: how can we make technology more accessible? And how do we simplify adoption?

It’s one thing to say, “We invented this technology.” It’s another to say, “It’s accessible and easy to use.” Making technology more cost-effective will also allow more people to adopt it, meaning you can find many more places to apply it and create impact, driving societal benefit.

It’s an incredibly complicated time to be a CEO, but I also believe there’s never been a better opportunity to drive lasting impact. With that in mind, what advice would you give to the next generation of leaders?

We are in a moment of great uncertainty globally. I always tell my teams three things. One, we can only control the controllable and do our best through how we operate our business, manage our people, and, most importantly, serve our customers. Two, be truthful with your teams, letting them know you don’t have all the answers when you don’t, while also conveying optimism about the future and providing a vision. And third is to build with purpose. We work here because we have a vision to deliver our technology to every company that needs it.

Thomas Kurian is the Chief Executive Officer of Google Cloud.

Asutosh Padhi is a senior partner and the managing partner for McKinsey in North America, leading the firm across the United States, Canada, and Mexico and serving as part of McKinsey’s 15-person global leadership team. He is also a member of McKinsey’s Shareholders Council, the firm’s equivalent to a board of directors.

He is the coauthor of The Titanium Economy, a new book that explores the industrial tech sector and the bright future that it can help create. It’s available now.

McKinsey & Company works with an open ecosystem of alliances, including Google Cloud. Learn more here. Mentions of organizations or individuals are not endorsements by McKinsey & Company.

This piece was originally posted on LinkedIn.com as part of Asutosh Padhi’s interview series, Leadership Rundown.

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