When it comes to CEOs, we do very little ranking on job competence. Instead, we mostly focus on salary and benefits and lament that, as a group, they are overpaid. A CEO, however, is the face of the company and, unlike almost any other company job, CEOs are rarely well trained or mentored into their unique positions with any repeatable rigor. A successful CEO may be successful because his or her staff covers up inadequacies, or because he or she is a truly great manager, with a critical mass of skills needed to run the company and do the job.
Failed CEOs typically take the blame, but often their failure is directly related to a board that just didn’t, or couldn’t, select someone with an adequate skill mix. HP has become famous for this last problem, rolling through CEOs more rapidly than some of us change cars. But two CEOs stand out in that company: Meg Whitman, who effectively has undone most of what her predecessors did to build HP; and Mark Hurd, the one CEO who actually seemed to have a clue, even though he wasn’t well regarded by the rank-and-file HP employees.
I think we can learn something by contrasting these two CEOs. The topic is on my mind because of the announcement today that Martin Fink, HPE’s CTO and lab head, is stepping down, which doesn’t bode well for its massive “The Machine” effort. This followed a call from a friend of Mark Hurd’s, who took me to task for pounding on Hurd for years with regard to the events that caused him to leave HP. I hadn’t been aware I’d been overly harsh and felt I needed to revisit this subject.
The Measures of a Successful CEO
The gold standard for CEOs is folks like Andy Grove of Intel, Thomas Watson of IBM, Steve Jobs of Apple, and Bill Gates of Microsoft. It is interesting to note that only one of these guys remains with us, but each was larger than life. Each is held up as a standard to those who replaced them, and each took their company to the top of their respected markets while becoming synonymous with success in the process.
All but Watson had reputations of being harsh, with Jobs likely being the harshest. Only Gates was defined by his wealth and then only because he was and is the wealthiest person in the world, not by his acquisitions (though his house is certainly memorable). Each had relatively low turnover in executive staff and a level of loyalty that stood above their peers. And each was a subject matter expert in his respective firm.
I think the elements that define a successful CEO are, in order:
- Whether the firm is better off than when the CEO joined it.
- Whether the CEO’s staff is loyal and stable.
- Whether the CEO knew that they were competent in the field they entered.
- Whether the CEO’s name is now associated with successes or failures.
Let’s look at each in turn.
Mark Hurd as CEO
NCR, HP and Oracle were in better shape after Hurd than they were before him. Yes, the employees, for the most part, weren’t fans in two of the three, but this may have been the result of eliminating long-term cultural practices that those employees felt were entitlements. Regardless of why Hurd left HP, the firm had been relatively stable and successful under his reign. Oracle, which had a near disaster in terms of Sun hardware when he joined, appears far better off. And Oracle is a software company for the most part, which should have been outside of Hurd’s skill set. Executives at both HP and Oracle have remained relatively static and they may speak to loyalty though, for Oracle, it may be loyalty to Larry Ellison, not Hurd (no way of telling, really).
Hurd appears to have outlived the stigma of his departure from HP and he is again considered a successful executive at Oracle. Is he a top CEO? No. But he is better than most and he has demonstrated skills consistent with a competent turnaround executive, which is a very rare skill, indeed.
Meg Whitman as CEO
Whitman came into the job at HP a failure, having lost her effort to win the California Governor’s job. It is interesting to note that the pivotal moment was when she yanked defeat out of the jaws of victory by turning against her housekeeper because she was an illegal alien, then blaming the whole event on her rival. This suggests that Whitman has a serious loyalty problem.
This plays out with the massive amount of executive churn the firm has experienced. Whitman has literally replaced the head of every one of her divisions and/or sold them off or spun them out. HP, now HPE, is a small fraction of what it was successfully under Hurd, and while it is performing better, HPE’s inability to execute has become a near constant. There is no indication that Whitman has learned the business she manages. The two strongest, most connected women in HP (CFO and head of HR), other than Whitman, chose the part of the business she didn’t run when HP split. I think that is incredibly telling.
It is interesting to note that it looks like the very behavior and lack of experience that cost her the California governorship, the inability to give or get loyalty, is what defines Whitman’s lack of success at HP.
Wrapping Up: Thoughts on Successful CEOs
One of the most important aspects of success for a CEO, one that I think is often overlooked, is the concept of loyalty, both from the people who report to the CEO and from the CEO to others. Some of the most successful CEOs I’ve followed over the years were, and are, defined by it. Being able to get people to run through fire for you is an amazing capability. It is largely what turned Apple around.
I think a lot of CEOs start thinking of themselves like royalty and the people that report to them as lesser beings. Then they wonder why their firms under perform. While Hurd is far from the best in this regard, his success showcases why he is so much better in this area than Whitman. Today’s news of yet another HPE executive departure suggests that the one lesson Whitman should have learned, how to get and give loyalty, hasn’t sunk in. It still defines her as a leader.
One other contrast is worth noting. I’ve had a number of conversations about Hurd at Oracle of late and while he was standoffish and known for being a bit of a jerk at HP, at Oracle he has been engaging and far more personable, suggesting that he is actively learning and improving over time. I think this too is the sign of a good executive at any level. We don’t start off as experts but if we can learn from our mistakes and improve, it not only makes us better leaders, it makes us better examples. Being a great example is likely the cornerstone of a great CEO.
In the end, using this list of factors, Hurd is the more successful CEO and I think a lot of this goes to the fact that he appears to have learned from his mistakes. Whitman, not so much.
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+