3 Reasons Larry Page Needs a COO, and 1 Reason He Won't Get One

Last Updated Apr 5, 2011 5:36 PM EDT

As Larry Page became CEO of Google (GOOG), all hell broke loose. The company revealed its bid on Nortel's patent portfolio. News broke about Google's attempt to rein in control over Android. Jonathan Rosenberg, the company's senior vice president for product management, quit the day Page took office.

Some of the signs suggest that Page wants to move quickly and deal with what he sees as serious problems in the organization. But the mix of organizational, strategic, and legal issues is daunting. Page doesn't have the background or experience to address the problems while maintaining daily control of a large company. He needs serious help in the form of an experienced chief operating officer. But he won't get one.

1. He lacks experience
Page has been president of products at Google since 2001, but Rosenberg has been in charge of products since 2002, so the title was likely on the ceremonial side. Page has been involved as part of the strategic decision triumvirate with chairman Eric Schmidt and co-founder Sergey Brin. But that's not the same as running a large company, or even a large independent business unit, on a day-to-day basis.

In short, he missed a chance at developing the skills over the last decade by working in many roles and building the practical insight into finance, marketing, and general operations, as well as product engineering. Under different circumstances, Page might have been able to ease his way in, but Google is in a tough spot in a number of ways.

2. Employees are fleeing
Employees have already begun to bail at a rate that forced the company to announce a hefty across-the-board 10 percent employee raise last year. The retention problem may also extend into management, given Page's apparent decision to restructure.

Page reportedly wanted multi-year commitments from executives, which Rosenberg wouldn't agree to. And he may not be a special case. John Paczkowski at All Things Digital reports a broader reorganization may allow individual business units, like the Android group, run more autonomously.

That's not necessarily good news. Google may want less bureaucracy, but it's also spent far too much time being unfocused. Products and even full lines of business come and go without any real sense of a solid strategic drive.

To give more room to the various groups and let engineers make the decisions is to drive the company further in that direction. Another Google Wave or Nexus One won't break the bank, but Page doesn't need more distraction.

Even one of the successes, Android under Andy Rubin, is a mixed bag. Huge amounts of market acceptance, but many third-party developers have found big problems with the platform. Android has also steered Google and its business partners into dozens of lawsuits in just the last year. That brings us to the next point.

3. Google is reckless and embattled
The biggest signs of Google's immaturity have been its apparent belief that rules and laws don't apply to it. Allegations of copyright or patent infringement, privacy violation, and anti-competitive behavior have become as common as news that it's raining in Oregon. Regulators investigate. Congressional committees call the company in to testify. Now there are rumors that Google is the possible target of an antitrust probe.

All companies face legal problems at times, but Google almost seems to have gone out of its way to tick people off. Probably a lot of non-engineers who aren't as smart as Page and his inner circle --lesser life forms, I'm sure. But IBM and Microsoft (MSFT) are both high tech examples that did themselves tremendous amounts of damage by not intelligently handling such challenges.

Why Page won't get a COO
And the fact that Google gone in the directions it has for so long suggests that the reasons are deep in the company's culture, and probably in Page, as well. Page needs someone who is involved at a very high level who understands how to deal with the strategic, operational, and legal issues. But that would mean admitting that he needed the help.

When Schmidt joined the company, Page was in his late 20s. He's now pushing 40 and has spent years, according to the New Yorker's Ken Auletta, seeing Schmidt interrupt and make fun of him. In his shoes, would you want another "adult" overseer? And Google's arrogance doesn't appear out of nowhere, independent of its founders.

So, Page won't get a CEO, until things are in a very bad way and the board of directors pushes enough. At that point, it will likely be too late.

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  • Erik Sherman On Twitter»

    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.

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