In a recent New York Times profile of Alphabet CEO Larry Page, Conor Dougherty reports that Page is known for asking employees seemingly simple questions about how they do their jobs.
Page, who cofounded Google with Sergey Brin, reorganized its corporate structure last year and became CEO of Google’s parent company, Alphabet. While Google focuses on search, YouTube, and Android, Alphabet encompasses other units, like Nest and Google X.
Dougherty cites an interview with Page at the 2015 Fortune Global Forum, in which Page said:
I really like going and talking to the people who run our data centres. I ask them, like, how does the transformer work? How does the power come in? What do we pay for that? I ask lots and lots and lots of questions. And I’m thinking about it both as an entrepreneur and as a business person. And I’m thinking, what are those opportunities?
Page doesn’t ask these questions to stump his staff; he’s genuinely fascinated by technological innovation. According to The Times article, Page is a “regular” at robotics conferences and TED events. His new role at Alphabet lets him pursue everything from space travel to artificial intelligence.
Page also wants to challenge his employees’ “assumptions about why things are as they are,” the article reports. Another question Page commonly asks: “Why can’t this be bigger?”
Former employees who spoke to The Times said Page tends to “take new technologies or product ideas and generalize them to as many areas as possible.” For example, Page might ask why Google Now can’t be used to predict everything about a person’s life.
It might seem like it would be scary to have your CEO drop in on you to ask why the company pays for the project you’re currently working on. But last year (when Page was still CEO of Google), employees in a Glassdoor survey ranked Page the best CEO of a large company.
In second place was Nike’s Mark Parker — who also likes to push employees to indulge his curiosity in order to make them smarter.
A 2009 USA Today article, for example, reported that employees in Nike’s research lab “say there’s no telling when Parker will drop in and start reeling off questions.”
Perhaps those who work at Google and Nike see these visits as a positive sign that their CEO wants to engage with them.
As Scott Dobroski, Glassdoor’s career trends analyst, told The Huffington Post, one reason why Page scored the top spot was because employees appreciated how accessible Page was. He “acted on the same level as other employees,” Dobroski said.
Meanwhile, George Bell, executive in residence at General Catalyst Partners and five-time CEO, recommends that CEOs leave about a third of their office time for simply walking around the office:
“One thing I like to do is drop in on a small group of product or engineering colleagues and ask them what they are working on — and why. Just listen. Express enthusiasm. If you have comments, make them, but this is not a strategy session.”