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Patrick Pichette: ‘When work starts feeling too comfortable, fire yourself’

Patrick Pichette, former CFO at Google, is taking time away from work to travel.

Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

Patrick Pichette, 53, former chief financial officer at Google Inc., stepped down about a year ago to travel the world. He previously served as executive vice-president at Bell Canada Inc. and as principal and partner of McKinsey & Co.'s Montreal office.

When we made our decision to travel the world, it was when our three kids were all into university and were independent. That is the perfect window. The minute we got married, my wife basically told me, we're having kids now and we're having kids all packed up because we're not spending a decade changing diapers. And she was right. We're going to be young and our kids are going to be our friends. I owe this to my wife, 100 per cent. It was a brilliant idea.

Being your own person and standing for what you believe is a critical aspect of a good professional life. When I joined BCE, there was a gentleman who was retiring the next week. And he came into my office and said, "I have one piece of advice for you: You have to be your own person." At McKinsey, it was such a collegial environment, but in big organizations, you have to be able to say, "You can fire me, but I'm not changing my mind, I actually believe this. And I think the data will support my hypothesis when push comes to shove." Even at Google. Google is an argumentative place. There's friction everywhere because that's how they get the sparks to invent stuff.

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I was this young partner at McKinsey and one day realized that I am actually a builder, not a consultant. I was in my 30s and loved consulting, but it frustrated me to no end because I just wanted to do it. I just wanted to build great things and operate great things. When BCE and Bell came to knock at my door and said hey, we want an operator, I jumped on the opportunity.

I love to change things a lot and I see opportunities everywhere. Tomorrow should be five times better than today. So when Google said, "Hey, do you want to come and have a coffee?" I thought, okay – innovation? That's the way to go! It was very easy.

When work starts feeling too comfortable, fire yourself; go get another job. For the vast majority of people, it is important to get out of the comfort zone. When you work for the same company for 37 years, it is very rare that it will keep you on your toes and give you the challenges you need to keep growing. I've had five careers – which sounds very millennial, but I think the millennials are right.

I've interviewed so many unbelievably smart people – 10 times smarter than me – and I didn't hire them. I didn't hire them not because they couldn't do the job, but because I knew that this person would have lowered the sum of my team, and so it's too bad. Sometimes, you just find really great people and then they just happen to fit really well with the rest of the team. But if the team doesn't want them, I don't hire them. You need the whole team.

I don't care about hierarchy and power. I just care about the right answer. I give everybody who works with me the obligation to dissent if they feel that we are doing something wrong or there is a mousetrap. If you just do your job and you're a yes person, you're not good enough. You have to actually have your own opinions and perspectives, and be able to defend them.

I am a mild introvert. But I have learned to be a very successful extrovert because if you want impact, you have to work with people. But when my job is done, I go climb mountains with a few friends. That's why travelling with my wife is a delight. My wife is an introvert, and we can be two days together and not say a word in bliss.

My wife and I were on the top of Mount Kilimanjaro for my 50th birthday. So we're on top of the world, overlooking the Serengeti and all of Africa's plains. The first thing that popped into our minds while we were having this cup of tea before coming back down was, "Why are we going back to work now? Why not explore?" What a great time to take a break and reinvent yourself. You have 25 years of fun ahead of you.

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I encourage everyone to take a gap year after they finish their undergrad [degree]. The vast majority of young people I meet would benefit so much from a year off. You should just go waste a year in exploring the beauty of the world and trying the craziest experiences you can. Build yourself an international community of friends and then you come back so much smarter – and you're twice as marketable. I think at 50, same thing – you should take a pause after 25-30 years of solid work. It's basically a sabbatical I'm on.

Right now, I am a nomad. What my wife, Tamar, and I are asking ourselves is, where should we live next? Where can we have the most fun? Where can we have the most impact? I am considering coming back to Canada; I just have to think through my next chapter. Right now, that's why I'm travelling – to empty my mind, to think about the next 25 years.

As told to Karl Moore, an associate professor in the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University in Montreal.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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