UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School


BSBA and MBA Alum Brent Callinicos, Google's Treasurer, on leading for success


When Brent Callinicos (BSBA ’87, MBA ’89) joined Google as vice president and treasurer in 2007, the company had $11 billion in cash and seven employees in the treasury.

Now, Callinicos manages $35 billion in cash and 50 employees at the company. His brainchild, a trading room at the Mountain, View, Calif-based company to manage the firm’s portfolio has been profiled in Businessweek.

Brent Callinicos

Before joining Google, Callinicos became one of the youngest people named as a vice president at Microsoft, where he was the company’s treasurer for four years.  He also has worked at Walt Disney and in various financial capacities at Procter & Gamble.

Callinicos attributes his success not only to his analytical and technical skills but to a leadership philosophy built on four key pillars:

  • Hiring employees with adaptive intelligence
  • Finding “blank sheets of paper” in his career
  • Measuring and benchmarking everything
  • Believing in “No Inappropriate Pride of Ownership”

Callinicos recently visited the school as a Lessons of Experience guest as part of the Leadership Initiative.  Here is how he explained his four key pillars to our students:

Adapt or die

Callinicos has had to adapt to challenging situations several times in his career, most notably when he was asked to take over a horizontal line business at Microsoft that he had no experience managing – a division with 700,000 partners that was struggling to perform.

“I didn’t know anything about the business; I didn’t know the people,” he says. “I had to learn about it.”

First up was making sure he had the best management team working with him.

“There’s a natural inclination to assume that when you need to fix something you need to fire a lot of people,” he notes. “When something needs to be fixed it is usually the leadership that needs to be fixed. There were really good people in this group, but they didn’t have a flag to rally around.”

Ultimately, Callinicos found success managing the business by relying on adaptive intelligence, and came to view the experience as valuable to his career path.

“When you are the subject matter expert in something you can also get pigeonholed. I was thought of as a treasury person. I needed to be stretched.”

Now, he looks for adaptive intelligence in his own team.

“I have to have people who can switch gears really quickly,” he adds. “The more adaptive people are, the more creative they are.”

Filling in the blanks

Right after joining Google, Callinicos sat down with CEO Eric Schmidt to discuss the role.

“He told me, ‘You know what a world class treasury looks like – go build one.’ It felt like going back in time a little bit. It was a company where everyone was excited about what they were doing. It wasn’t management anymore; it was change. It was a blank sheet of paper Don’t manage – change. If you have the opportunity to have a blank sheet of paper, take it.”

He adds that a company’s culture and personality make a huge difference in what you accomplish. He advises people to do a lot of homework before taking a new role – essentially interviewing their potential manager to find out if there is the opportunity to find – and fill in – those blank sheets of paper.

“If that sheet of paper is already filled out it is really hard to make a difference.”

But before filling in the blanks, Callinicos notes the importance of gauging how a new company culture works. Early on at Google, he realized that he didn’t have all the support he needed for a project.

“When you have been in a culture for a long time, you assume that cultures are universal. I was so forceful, carrying over that Microsoft personality and wanting to shine that people were reluctant to tell me they disagreed with me.”

He opted to step back from a few projects and immerse himself in the Google culture, ultimately putting together an ad hoc advisory council of other executives that could initially help guide him in the nuances of the Google culture.

Measure, measure, measure

Google’s innovative culture leads to a plethora of new products - they released more than 500 product improvements to search alone last year – but all of those were tied to finite expectations, and each is measured.

“Google is a math company,” he adds. “Most people have some kind of math background. It is part of the DNA of Google to measure everything.”

ROI matters at the company, Callinicos emphasizes. When he gets approval to spend money on new initiatives, “I am signing up for a better bottom line.”

Callinicos has top-line goals and transformation goals, and he gets feedback from the entire organization on how they feel about him multiple times a year. Employees are measured in .1 increments on performance.

No inappropriate pride of ownership

As an executive who favors what he describes as “over communication,” Callinicos fosters the innovation that Google is envied for by ensuring that the people he works with know that he believes in what he calls “No Inappropriate Pride of Ownership.”

“I don’t want anybody to think that because I created something that we shouldn’t change it. If we haven’t changed something in 12 months, why? I also hire people that have the same mentality about areas they build. At Google the best idea holds. If you have an environment like that it is very conducive to changing things.”

Google’s CEO fosters an open culture by sharing everything with employees – his plans for the company, his communication with the company’s board. Callinicos uses that same strategy to help foster new ideas within his team.

He strives to spend a lot of time giving people the context of what he is asking them to do in their jobs and gathering their feedback.

Once people know context, they will be more willing to bring new ideas to how to accomplish company and team goals.

“At Google we have a culture of ‘yes.’ If your default answer is more likely to be ‘yes’ than ‘no’ people know that you are open to new ideas. The idea is not to prevent failure, but to prevent material failure.”