Last week, I was doing a segment for CNBC on the Apple Watch and whether it was going to be a massive success or not (it looks like it will take at least three versions for this product to catch on and the odds against it are pretty long). I’d arrived at the studio a little closer to the time I was to be on air than I’d intended. I thought I’d just run in and do the show, only to find that Governor Rick Perry was in town and had the studio before me. So I sat in the reception area, pulled out my Kindle, and got lost in my latest book passion, the “Play to Live” series about humans learning to live in a World of Warcraft-like, full immersion virtual world (a rather timely theme, given the upswing in VR and AR), and Governor Perry came out.
I was thinking, here we go, another entitled jerk who thinks the universe revolves around him. Then I saw him do something unusual. He thanked the cameraman for doing a great job, something that I’m a bit ashamed to admit I’ve never done, and then he came over and introduced himself. We actually had a nice chat. No pretension, he didn’t lecture me, he didn’t act like some form of royalty, and even his staff seemed kind of embarrassed that he was just a really nice, regular guy.
We didn’t talk about any divisive issues, but he wanted to chat about how difficult it had been to convince companies to move out of California to Texas because our weather is so wonderful (I currently live in Silicon Valley). He also regretted not being able to win the big mega lithium-ion factory for his state, though, in hindsight, I think Texas will be glad to have lost that one. Lithium-ion is on its last legs and a huge plant to make batteries is really difficult to convert to anything else. After our chat, he smiled, wished us all good luck, and rode off into the sunset in a black SUV (ok, I’m making up this last part).
This all got me thinking about executive attributes that we don’t value enough.
Often, when people get titles, they develop behavioral tendencies that make it look like they believe they are part of an elite class of people, where the rules that govern the rest of us don’t apply. This is not saying they don’t belong to that class, but the behavior tends to alienate staff, partners and customers, and leads to ill-thought-out decisions, like having the company pay for a mistress (an all too frequent occurrence at the top levels of management). All of this lowers the value of the executive to the company, increases their risk of getting into serious trouble, and creates all kinds of executive distractions, like overbuying luxury items that now need to be managed, maintained and protected.
Some of the biggest problems I’ve observed over the years are folks who use their position to lord it over everyone else. There was the CMO for Novell who, coming out of Gartner, negotiated that she be driven by limo everyplace, even between Novell buildings. Or the CMO at Intel out of Samsung who didn’t want to be in a cubicle like every other executive, including the CEO, and turned a conference room into his office, alienating pretty much everyone. Or the HP CEO known for buying the most advanced fleet of personal jets and going everyplace in a Maybach while laying off massive numbers of people. Or the HP CEO who allegedly thought it was a good idea for the company to hire a movie star mistress. I could go on for pages, but all of these things ended badly for the firm and the executive.
One of the nice things about working for startups is that, often, the folks are just regular people from top to bottom. Yes, some make more than others, but you may get invited to the top executive’s home for dinner or share a car hobby with them, even though they have more cars. Executives like this maintain a stronger connection to their people and the market, they are more pleasant to work with and for, and they are more likely to have your back than stick a knife in it.
For some reason, a lot of executives think it is an advantage to be really hard. This isn’t just a guy thing either, as some of the meanest executives I’ve followed and worked for have been women. Carly Fiorina out of HP, Marissa Mayer at Yahoo, Todd Bradly at HP, and especially Steve Jobs had reputations for being incredibly hard on their people and unable to foster loyalty in their staff. Yes, Jobs was successful and people did want to work for him in huge numbers, showcasing that celebrity is a powerful attractant, but the stories you don’t hear are about the folks who develop a deep hate for these people and then work tirelessly to bring them down. Fiorina was fired and has been unsuccessful in politics, Mayer is failing at Yahoo, Bradly has become a non-entity, and Jobs’ private personality was never presented as an asset.
The good leader knows they have to take care of and build their team to ensure that, when that team is needed, they will do whatever is necessary to protect and support that leader. When I was in graduate school, Vietnam was presented as the war where the U.S. used management rather than leadership and it created the term “fragging,” which is when the soldiers shoot their own officers.
At companies like EMC and Dell, you hear about executives who talk about their tenure in terms of decades. In other firms, which are often in deep trouble, they talk tenure in weeks, months, and single-digit years because the job is more like a jail sentence than a great place to work.
Nurturing executives are a rare breed but one that we should prefer and talk about more often.
Wrapping Up: What Makes a Firm Great
I know this is kind of a touchy-feely subject but I think we focus far too much on quarterly financial success and not enough on the behaviors that make firms truly great. We talk collaboration but we don’t promote the behaviors in our executives that foster it. The end result is a mess like the one Satya Nadella is working to fix at Microsoft, which went from a highly collaborative collegiate culture to one of hostility, silos and backstabbing. Nadella appears to embody the traits I’m talking about but he is likely finding that fixing a problem like this is far harder than not letting it emerge in the first place.
In the end, Perry reminded me that, politics aside, there are people that you will and have worked for that make the job more rewarding, that you will likely follow anyplace they ask you to go voluntarily, and that you’ll never forget. We don’t spend enough time looking for them, or trying to become them and, as a result, we are surrounded by way too many jerks. That’s my deep thought for the week.
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+