EMC's Joe Tucci Channels IBM’s Thomas Watson Jr. to Build Immortal EMC

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The gold standard in terms of long-term survival in the market is IBM, a technology company that has been around for over a century. The reason is that IBM’s founders, uniquely, assured their legacy by designing in a process that assured executives had the breadth to run the company. Well, with EMC’s recent announcements that company is now showcasing a process that is forcing executives to step out of their comfort areas and learn parts of the business they will need to know if they are tasked with eventually running the company. This will eventually give EMC a deep bench of possible CEO candidates and assure succession regardless of whether any of the candidates leaves or dies in the interim.

This is in sharp contrast to what often happens at firms where CEOs either allow subordinates to avoid areas that don’t interest them or actively eliminate any that appear capable of doing their jobs and thus pretty much assure the firm will go into decline after a winning CEO has been running the company. I think CEOs should be required to do what Tucci just did, but in lieu of that, I think CEOs who plan to preserve their firm and legacy should be recognized in the hope others will follow.

Let’s explore this.

Steve Jobs and Carly Fiorina

While one of these CEOs was clearly a success and the other was a failure, both had a similar mindset, which appeared to be that they didn’t want a rival in the company. Steve Jobs was deeply afraid that he might be let go (his prior firing from Apple crushed him) as a result of a mistake or because his sickness left him out of the loop for too long (up until the end he thought he would recover).

Carly Fiorina, who lacked operations background and skills, eliminated Michael Capellas as a rival even though his skills coupled with hers would have likely addressed the problems the board fired her for.

In the end, they both left their companies weaker and, had they fully trained replacements, their firms (and Apple is more Jobs’ legacy than HP is Carly’s) would stand as a long-term testament to their existence. HP has all but forgotten Carly and Apple is starting to show signs of stress as Samsung takes over the top smartphone spot and execution problems are being showcased in delayed product releases (not to mention an impressive number of leaks).

IBM’s Thomas Watson Jr.

It was Thomas Watson Jr. who worked to assure that IBM had a process to train and then select the best CEO for the job. This process only broke once largely due to the fact that IBM lost its way and shifted from a policy of customer focus to one of quarterly results and nearly died as a result. But other than that one hiccup, IBM has been a fixture in this market almost since the turn of the last century and it is once again trading at an all-time high. In a speech by Sam Palmisano about a year ago, the magic of IBM’s early, brilliant strategy was driven home. It was built to last centuries and it massively outlasted its peers as a result.

Thomas Watson Jr. recognized that his true legacy wasn’t his job or what he made, but the company itself and he assured that IBM would last forever.

Tucci Picks up the Torch

Tucci, apparently channeling Thomas Watson Jr., has picked up the torch and has started to move executives around to assure that each has the needed skills, under his guidance, to do the job better than Tucci did. In fact, from software to hardware, both Gelsinger and Maritz will have more product breadth when their current tours are done than Tucci himself has. He appears to be creating executives who not only can do as good a job, but might even be able to do a better job, than he has done.

This goes to the core of assuring that the company you are leading is left in better shape than you found it. Tucci is assuring that when he eventually leaves, the CEO he leaves behind won’t be as good as he was, but should be better. That is the one aspect of leaving a corporation better than you found it that most CEOs seem to forget; that is, they also need to leave the office of the CEO better than they found it and that means creating, if possible, a stronger successor.

Wrapping Up: Tucci Should Be Recognized

In a world where CEOs often seem to work to prevent anyone from outshining them, a CEO who realizes that part of the job isn’t just to find a successor but to make sure his or her successor is better trained for the current world is a rare find. Tucci, with these recent staffing changes, is assuring that not only will EMC have a strong bench when he eventually retires, but that the person replacing him will be better qualified to lead EMC in the world of today than he was due largely to stronger cross-training.

The lasting lesson is that not only should you leave the company better than you found it, you should leave the office of the CEO better than you found it, and under Tucci, EMC is schooling every other firm by doing just that.