Google CEO Sundar Pichai had a tough and terrible year

While Google and Pichai’s responses may not have pleased everyone, at least they look good in comparison to its Silicon Valley rival.

“Google did better than Facebook this year,” says Pivotal analyst Brian Weiser. “Many of the same issues that Facebook faced are issues for Google as well, but the primary distinction is that Google is a better-run company so it just didn’t have the same level of focus.”

That sentiment hasn’t been lost on employees. One worker on the advertising side told CNBC that their manager jokes that any time it seems like an issue could blow up, Facebook does something worse.

Pichai’s demeanor has helped.

“I think he brings emotional intelligence to a Valley that has very little of it,” says Eric Schiffer, chairman of consulting firm Reputation Management.

“Employees that I talk to also have empathy for the position that he’s in, which is having to be a coalition-builder between employees and shareholders, whose interests don’t align in all cases and at times have harrowingly different priorities.”

Google’s renewed interest in China is an example. Pichai has described it as too big a market to ignore, but its plans for censored search there counter the company’s previous decision to withdraw from the country, which was couched in moral terms. Threading that needle requires the kind of deft touch — tactfulness, if you will — that Pichai has made his signature.

However, this tactfulness could also be seen as wishy-washiness. As one former Google executive summed it up, Pichai is well-balanced leader who likes to find compromises. But that can mean that instead of solving problems quickly and decisively, he and the rest of Google’s leadership are letting them build and fester.

While Google hasslipped in the rankings of desirable places to work, all its missteps and scandals haven’t caused a blip in its financials. Powering the Internet’s most extensive and essential network of advertising platforms pays off: Alphabet earned $9.2 billion in profits last quarter, up 37 percent from a year ago.

As Google’s strained year winds down, it seems like Pichai’s biggest challenges for next year, too, will not be making shareholders happy, but appeasing users, regulators, and employees.

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