You adapt, or you adopt, or you die

I was in Boston and stopped by the Harvard Business Review for their IdeaCast podcast. I shared my current thinking about innovation in companies and government agencies. The interviewer, Curt Nickisch was great and managed to get me to summarize several years of learning in one podcast.  He even got me to tell my Steve Jobs interview story.

It’s worth a listen.

Listen to the entire interview here:

Or listen to just parts of the interview:
3:29 Entrepreneurs make their own luck
4:35 The difference between an idea and an entrepreneur
5:18 Why entrepreneurship thrived in Silicon Valley
7:10 The pay-it-forward culture
7:53 Failure as part of the process
9:32 When I was more wrong than anyone on earth
11:20 Steve Jobs on Customer Development
12:38 The first time I did customer discovery
14:49 Engineers built products for themselves and the “next bench”
15:27 Why MBA’s avoided Silicon Valley
16:01 20th century investors were not entrepreneurs
16:45 Startups are not smaller versions of large companies
18:18 We needed a management stack for innovation
19:17 HBR and the Lean Startup and corporations
20:09 Why Lean fails in corporations
20:45 Startups can do anything, companies can only do what’s legal
22:0o The team
22:23 Rewards
23:00 What will drive continuous corporate innovation?
24:01 Innovation Theater
24:39 Innovation at speed
25:27 You adapt, or you adopt, or you die

Why Corporate Innovation is Harder Now

I was at Stanford in the Graduate School of Business and was interviewed by Peter Gardner of StartGrid for his On The Road podcast. I shared my current thinking about innovation in companies and government agencies.

It’s worth a listen.

BTW, it seems every podcast has a trick last question. This one was, “if I was on a road trip what’s the destination and what’s playing on the radio?”

Listen to the entire interview here:

Or just parts of the interview:

01:59     What drew me to entrepreneurship
03:43     What motivates me about innovation today
05:25     Entrepreneurship in the 20th century
06:30     The difference between large companies and startups
07:13     The Lean Startup Lightbulb moment
07:44     An MBA meant Master of Business Administration
08:18     Agile Development and Lean – Eric Ries
09:05     Business Model Canvas – Alexander Osterwalder
12:32     Innovation in Large Companies in the 20th Century
13:05     Startup Capital at Scale threatens large Companies
13:58     Startups operate with alacrity, agility and at times a death wish
15:06     Companies can only do things that are legal, while startups can do anything
16:00     Corporate defcon level – the wartime footing level
17:41     Innovation Theater
18:23     Did you move the top or bottom line?
19:50     Two types of 21st century corporations
20:55     Hedge funds and dual-class stock
22:28     Innovation pipeline not silos
24:25     Innovation Outposts
26:32     Why Innovators Leave Companies
27:30     We can’t afford to have our government go out of business
28:54    Why I turn on the Beach Boys

Why good people leave large tech companies

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather wood,
divide the work, and give orders.

Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

I was visiting with an ex-student who’s now the CFO of a large public tech company. The company is still one of the hottest places to work in tech. They make hardware with a large part of their innovation in embedded software and services.

The CFO asked me to stay as one of the engineering directors came in for a meeting.

I wish I hadn’t.

—-

The director was there to protest the forced relocation of his entire 70-person team from Palo Alto to the East Bay. “Today most of my team walks to work or takes the train there. The move will have them commuting for another 45 minutes. We’re going to lose a lot of them.”

The director had complained to his boss, the VP of Engineering, who admitted his hands were tied, as this was a “facilities matter,” and the VP of facilities reported to the CFO. So, this was a meeting of last resort, as the engineering director was making one last appeal to the CFO to keep his team in town.

While a significant part of the headcount of this tech company was in manufacturing, the director’s group was made up of experienced software engineers. Given they could get new jobs by just showing up at the local coffee shop, I was stunned by the CFO’s reply: “Too bad, but we need the space. They’re lucky they work here. If they leave at least they’ll have ‘name of our company’ on their resume.”

WTF? I wasn’t sure who was more shocked, the director or me.

After the director left, I must have looked pretty surprised as the CFO explained, “We have tens of thousands of employees, and at the rate we’re growing it’s almost impossible to keep up with our space needs in the Bay Area. You know for our CEO, ‘love us or leave us’ has been his policy from day one.” (By coincidence, the CEO was an intern at one of my startups more than two decades ago.) I asked, “Now that the company is public and has grown so large, has the policy changed?” The CFO replied, “No, our CEO believes we are on a mission to change the world, and you really have to want to work here or you ought to leave. And because we’re inundated with resumes from people who want to work for us, he sees no reason to change.”

I don’t know what was more sobering, thinking that the policy which might have made sense as a scrappy startup, was now being applied to a company with 10,000+ employees or that the phrase, “…we are on a mission to change the world, and you really have to want to work here or you ought to leave…” was the exact same line I used when the now-CEO was my intern.

Adult Supervision
Before the rapid rise of Unicorns, (startups with a valuation over a billion dollars), when boards were still in control, they “encouraged” the hiring of “adult supervision” of the founders after they found product/market fit. The belief then was that most founders couldn’t acquire the HR, finance, sales, and board governance skills rapidly enough to steer the company to a liquidity event, so they hired professional managers. These new CEOs would also act as a brake to temper the founder’s excesses.

In the last decade, technology investors realized that these professional CEOs were effective at maximizing, but not finding, product cycles. Yet technology cycles have become a treadmill, and to survive startups need to be on a continuous innovation cycle. This requires retaining a startup culture for years – and who is best to do that? The founders. Founders are comfortable in the chaos and disorder. In contrast, professional managers attempt to bring order to chaos and often kill the startup culture in the process. Venture firms realized that teaching a founding CEO how to grow a company is easier than teaching the professional CEO how to find the new innovation for the next product cycle. And they were right.  It was true in the company I was visiting— and in the last five years over 200 other Unicorns have emerged, and most still have their founders at the helm.

And so, this startup found itself with a “founder friendly” board that believed that the company could grow at a greater rate if the founding CEO continued to run the company. This founder’s reality distortion field attracted a large number of employees who shared his vision. It was so compelling, everyone worked extremely long hours, for little pay and some stock. They were lucky, they got the timing right, and after a painful couple of years figured out product/market fit, and went public. And those early employees got rewarded as their stock turned into cash.

The problem was that at some point past employee 1000, the big payoffs ended from pre-public stock and the stock’s subsequent run-up from their IPO. But the CEO never noticed that the payoff had ended for the other 95% of his company. Flying to his remote company locations in his private jet, and surrounded by his early employees who were now worth tens of millions of dollars, the mantra of “you really have to want to work here or you ought to leave” rang hollow for the latest employees.

The company was now attracting interns who did want the name of this hot company on their resume. But since compensation was way below average, they stayed just long enough to pump up their resumes and left for much better paying jobs – often in a startup.

And because fewer senior engineers considered it a great place to work, the company’s initial technology advantage has started to erode.

Wakeup Call
The downside of founders running large companies is that there are no written best practices, no classes, no standard model at all. And given that in the past, founders as a group were rarely in charge as startups became large companies, it’s no surprise. Reprogramming founders who grew their business by being agile, relentless, tenacious, and often aggressive, and irrational and at times, into CEOs that can drive organizational growth, is tough.

This means quickly learning a new set of skills; sublimating large egos, working through direct reports, when their span of control can no longer encompass the entire company; and building repeatable processes that enable scale. At times this comes only after a crisis that provides a wakeup call.

As a startup scales into a company, founders and the board need to realize that the most important transitions are not about systems, buildings or hardware. They’re about the company’s most valuable asset – its employees.

Founders of great companies figure out how the keep their passion but put people before process.

Postscript
I can tell this story now, as the director left the company and founded his own startup in a different market segment. Over the next six months 55 of the 70 employees in his group that were asked to relocate left. 25 of them joined his new startup. And of the other 30 who left?  Six new startups were formed.

Lessons Learned

  • Be careful of unintended consequences when you grow
  • Recognize the transition boundaries in company size
  • Recognize that what drove an Innovation Culture when you were small may no longer apply when you’re large

Why a Company Can’t “Be More Like a Startup”

This article originally appeared in the Harvard Business Review

 

As more and more companies face disruption from globalization, new technology, and startups that have more capital than the incumbents, the continuing cry from Wall Street investors is, “Why can’t companies be as innovative as startups?”

Here’s one reason why:

Startups can do anything.

Companies can only do what’s legal.

Startups can do anything
One of the unheralded advantages of a startup is what at first glance appears to be its weakness. Initially, a startup has no business model and no market share to defend. Its employees and investors don’t depend on an existing revenue stream. If they select a business model that targets industry incumbents, they don’t have to worry about upsetting existing customers, partners or distribution channels.

Yet those very weaknesses give startups an overwhelming advantage in innovation.  Startups can try any idea and any business model—even those that are on the surface patently illegal.

At times laws and regulations are in place for the health and safety of consumers. But often the legal obstacles confronting startups have been put in place by companies that look to the government and regulators as their first line of defense against new market entrants. (Existing companies also use network effects of monopolies/duopolies, distribution channel kickbacks, etc., to stifle competition.)

In the past, these anti-innovation tools were sufficient to keep new entrants out. But today, investors realize that companies that depend on regulation and artificial market constraints are actually vulnerable. Once presented with an alternative to the status quo, customers who have been locked into rent-seeking companies flock to innovative startups with business models that provide better service, lower prices, etc. Enormous financial returns are available to startups taking on incumbents, regulators and the law. So, startup investors comfortable making a risk capital bet are actively encouraging startups to go after large, static industries that look prime for disruption.

Here are some of the most visible examples.

Uber – current valuation >$70 billion – knew the day they started that their ridesharing service violated the law in most jurisdictions. Carrying passengers for payment, historically considered commercial use, was regulated in most cities.  In addition, some cities put an artificial limit on the number of taxi operators by requiring them to buy medallions and agree to a set of local regulations.  Uber ignored all of these requirements and reinvented local transportation by offering a more convenient service. Today, New York City has 13,587 yellow-taxi medallions and more than 50,000 Uber and Lyft cars.

PayPal – acquired by eBay three years after it was founded for $1.5 billion – started as a money transfer system for buyers and sellers on eBay. Banks protested that PayPal was an unregulated bank; and of course, are regulated by the federal government and states. As PayPal grew, incumbent banks forced it to register in each state. Ironically, once PayPal complied with state regulations by registering as a “money transmitter” on a state-by-state basis, it created a barrier to entry for future new entrants.

Airbnb – current valuation $31 billion – allows people to rent out their homes, rooms or apartments to visitors. Not surprisingly Airbnb violates local housing laws and regulations in many cities.  None of the renters pay hotel or tourist tax.  Every Airbnb rental is a lost night of revenue for hotels that hate it.  The company has more rooms available then any hotel chain.

Tesla – current valuation $50 billion – sells cars directly through its own distribution channel. To protect auto dealerships in the 1920s, direct sales by an automobile manufacturer were made illegal in most states in the U.S.  Because Tesla believed that existing auto dealers would have no incentive to sell electric cars, they created an alternative option for consumers.

Companies can do anything legal
In the 20th century companies worried about increasing their market share, profit margins, return on investment and return on net assets. They tenaciously protected their existing markets from other existing companies that were using the same business model. They very rarely worried about disruption from new firms as the barriers to entry (financial, legal, regulatory) were so high.

Ironically once companies become locked in their entrenched market positions, it became difficult for them to compete by breaking the same laws or untangling their existing channel relationships. In contrast to startups, companies are constrained by local, state and federal laws and regulations.  The risk of breaking laws can result in large penalties and shareholder lawsuits.  The Justice Department and State Attorneys General find large companies attractive targets.

As a consequence, one of the roles of the legal department in large corporations is to protect the company from straying into any legal or regulatory danger. (For example, when Volkswagen discovered their diesel cars couldn’t pass U.S. pollution standards, it faked the tests by programming cars to pass inspections. However, in normal driving these cars put out over 40 times the allowed nitrous oxide pollutants allowed by law.  After it was discovered, legal penalties cost Volkswagen $18 billion and several indicted executives.)

Yet trying to stay within the legal lines companies paint themselves into a corner by creating their own internal barriers to innovation. Instead of innovating, most industries being disrupted turn to litigation.

To compete with Tesla’s direct sales to consumers, GM, Ford, and the rest of the auto industry either have to shut Tesla out of selling directly to consumers or they have to abandon their own dealer networks and sell directly as well. It’s an untenable and unsustainable position as consumers find car salesmen to be one of the least trusted groups. To defend their dealer network, car makers decided to litigate instead of innovating.

Taxi companies needed to start copying Uber’s business model but instead they turned to lobbyists and legislation to convince cities that deregulated ridesharing was a bad idea.

Hotel chains burdened with even a greater capital investment in their physical buildings are doing the same thing.

Corporations using existing business models have people, processes and revenue goals that can’t be changed overnight. These incumbents tend to have short-term goals and incentives (stock price, quarterly earnings, year-end bonuses) and often fail to recognize that more money can be made on new platforms and new distribution channels. In each case litigation versus innovation is seems obvious choice.

What can a company do?
The introduction of new technology has always been disruptive to existing markets, particularly to those who sell through well-established distribution channels and have extensive capital equipment and fixed investments. But today, as disruption happens faster, and is funded at enterprise scale, companies need to figure how to create a portfolio of innovation. They can do so by first identifying technology trends with innovation outposts located in technology centers; second, by investing in early-stage disruptors; third – buying disruptors and keeping their innovation culture and people; while fourth, creating an innovation culture internally that disrupts their own business model before others do.

We Have A Moral Obligation

I was in Boston and was interviewed by The Growth Show about my current thinking about innovation in companies and government agencies.The interviewer was great and managed to get me to summarize several years of learning in one podcast.

It’s worth a listen.

At the end of the interview I got surprised by a great question – “What’s the Problem that Still Haunts You?”  I wasn’t really prepared for the question but gave the best answer I could on the fly.

Part of the answer is the title of this blog post.

Listen to the entire interview here:
Taking the Lean Startup From Silicon Valley to Corporations and the State and Defense Department

Or just parts of the interview:
1:20  Failure and Lessons Learned

Why Some Startups Win

If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you know when you get there?

I was having a second coffee with an ex student, now the head of a marketing inside a rapidly growing startup.  His company had marched through customer discovery, learning about the customer problem, validated solutions and was now scaling sales and marketing.  All good news.

But he was getting uneasy that as his headcount was growing the productivity of his marketing department seemed to be rapidly declining.

I wasn’t surprised. When organizations are small (startups, small teams in companies and government agencies) early employees share a mission (why they come to work, what they need to do while they are at work, and how they will know they have succeeded). But as these organizations grow large, what was once a shared mission and intent gets buried under HR process and Key Performance Indicators.

I told him that I had learned long ago that to keep that from happening, you need to on-board/train your team about mission and intent.

—-

Why Do You Work Here?
I had taken the job of VP of Marketing in a company emerging from bankruptcy. We’d managed to secure another infusion of cash, but it wasn’t going to last long.

During my first week on the job, I asked each of my department heads what they did for marketing and the company. When I asked our trade show manager, she looked surprised and said, “Steve, don’t you know that my job is to take our booth to trade shows and set it up?” The other departments gave the same type of logistical answers; the product-marketing department, for example, said their job was to get the product specs from engineering and write data sheets. But my favorite was when the public relations manager told me, “We’re here to summarize the data sheets and put them in press releases and then answer the phone in case the press calls.”

If these sound like reasonable answers to you, and you are in a startup, update your resume.

Titles Are Not Your Job
When I pressed my staff to explain why marketing did trade shows or wrote press releases or penned data sheets, the best response I could get was, “Why that’s our job.” In their heads their titles were a link back to a Human Resources job spec that came from a 10,000-person company (ie. listing duties and responsibilities, skills and competencies, reporting relationships…)

It dawned on me that we had a department full of people with titles describing process-centric execution while we were in environment that required relentless agility and speed with urgency. While their titles might be what their business cards said, titles were not their job – and being a slave to process lost the sight of the forest for the trees.  This was the last thing we needed in a company where every day could be our last.

Titles in a startup are not the same as what your job is. This is a big idea.

Department Mission Statements – What am I Supposed to Do Today?
It wasn’t that I had somehow inherited dumb employees. What I was hearing was a failure of management.

No one had on-boarded these people. No one had differentiated a startup job description from a large company job. They were all doing what they thought they were supposed to.

But most importantly, no one had sat the marketing department down and defined our department Mission (with a capital “M”).

Most startups put together a corporate mission statement because the CEO remembered seeing one at his last job or the investors said they needed one. Most companies spend an inordinate amount of time crafting a finely honed corporate mission statement for external consumption and then do nothing internally to make it happen. What I’m about to describe here is quite different.

What our marketing department was missing was anything that gave the marketing staff daily guidance about what they should be doing. The first reaction from my CEO was, “That’s why you’re running the department.” And yes, we could have built a top-down, command-and-control hierarchy. But what I wanted was an agile marketing team capable of operating independently without day-to-day direction.

We needed to craft a Departmental Mission statement that told everyone why they came to work, what they needed to do while they were at work, and how they would know they had succeeded. And it was going to mention the two words that marketing needed to live and breathe: revenue and profit.

Five Easy Pieces – The Marketing Mission
After a few months of talking to customers and working with sales, we defined the marketing Mission (our job) as:

Help Sales deliver $25 million in sales with a 45% gross margin. To do that we will create end-user demand and drive it into the sales channel, educate the channel and customers about why our products are superior, and help Engineering understand customer needs and desires. We will accomplish this through demand-creation activities (advertising, PR, tradeshows, seminars, web sites, etc.), competitive analyses, channel and customer collateral (white papers, data sheets, product reviews), customer surveys, and customer discovery findings.

This year, marketing needs to provide sales with 40,000 active and accepted leads, company and product name recognition over 65% in our target market, and five positive product reviews per quarter. We will reach 35% market share in year one of sales with a headcount of twenty people, spending less than $4,000,000.

  • Generate end-user demand (to match our revenue goals)
  • Drive that demand into our sales channels
  • Value price our products to achieve our revenue and margin goals (create high-value)
  • Educate our sales channel(s)
  • Help Engineering understand customer needs

That was it. Two paragraphs, Five bullets. It didn’t take more.

Building a Mission-focused Team
Having the mission in place meant that our team could see that what mattered wasn’t what was on their business card, but how much closer their work moved our department to completing the mission. Period.
It wasn’t an easy concept for everyone to understand.

My new Director of Marketing Communications turned the Marcom departments into a mission-focused organization. Her new tradeshow manager quickly came to understand that his job was not to set up booths. We hired union laborers to do that. A trade show was where our company went to create awareness and/or leads. And if you ran the tradeshow department, you owned the responsibility for awareness and leads. The booth was incidental. I couldn’t care less if we had a booth or not if we could generate the same amount of leads and awareness by skydiving naked into a coffee cup.

The same was true for PR. My new head of Public Relations quickly learned that my admin could answer calls from the press. The job of Public Relations wasn’t a passive “write a press release and wait for something to happen” activity. It wasn’t measured by how busy you were, it was measured by results. And the results weren’t the traditional PR metrics of number of articles or inches of ink. I couldn’t care less about those. I wanted our PR department to map the sales process, figure out where getting awareness and interest could be done with PR, then get close and personal with the press and use it to generate end-user demand and then drive that demand into our sales channel. We were constantly doing internal and external audits and creating metrics to see the effects of different PR messages, channels and audiences on customer awareness, purchase intent and end-user sales.

The same was true for the Product Marketing group. I hired a Director of Product Marketing who in his last company had ran its marketing and then went out into the field and became its national sales director. He got the job when I asked him how much of his own marketing material his sales team actually used in the field. When he said, “about ten percent,” I knew by the embarrassed look on his face I had found the right guy. And our Director of Technical Marketing was superb at understanding customer needs and communicating them to Engineering.

Mission Intent – What’s Really Important
With a great team in place, the next step was recognizing that our Mission statement might change on the fly. “Hey, we just all bought into this Mission idea and now you’re telling us it can change?!”  (The mission might change if we pivot, competitors might announce new products, we might learn something new about our customers, etc.)

So we introduced the notion of Mission Intent. Intent answered the question, “What is the company thinking and goal behind the mission?” In our case, the mission of the company was to sell $25 million of product with 45% gross margin. The idea of teaching intention is that if employees understand what we intended  behind the mission, they can work collaboratively to achieve it.

We recognized that there would be a time marketing would screw up or something out of our control would happen, making the marketing mission obsolete (i.e. we might fail to deliver 40,000 leads.) Think of intention as the answer to the adage, “When you are up to your neck in alligators it’s hard to remember you were supposed to drain the swamp.” For example, our mission intent said that the reason why marketing needed to deliver 40,000 leads and 35% market share, etc., was so that Sales could sell $25 million of products at 45% gross margin.

What we taught everyone is that the intention is more enduring than the mission. (“Let’s see, the company is trying to sell $25 million in product with 45% gross margin. If marketing can’t deliver the 40,000 leads, what else can we do for sales to still achieve our revenue and profitability?”) The mission was our goal, but based on circumstances, it might change. However, the Intent was immovable.

When faced with the time pressures of a startup, too many demands and too few people, we began to teach our staff to refer back to the five Mission goals and the Intent of the department. When stuff started piling up on their desks, they learned to ask themselves, “Is what I’m working on furthering these goals? If so, which one? If not, why am I doing it?”

They understood the mission intent was our corporate revenue and profit goals.

Why Do It
By the end of the first year, our team had jelled. (Over time, we added the No Excuses culture to solve accountability.) It was a department willing to exercise initiative, with the judgment to act wisely and an eagerness to accept responsibility.

I remember at the end of a hard week my direct reports came into my office just to talk about the week’s little victories. And there was a moment as they shared their stories when they all began to realize that our company (one that had just come off of life support) was beginning to kick the rear of our better-funded and bigger competitors.  We all marveled in the moment.


Lessons Learned

  • Push independent execution of tasks down to the lowest possible level
  • Give everyone a shared Mission Statement: why they come to work, what they need to do, and how they will know they have succeeded.
  • Share Mission Intent for the big picture for the Mission Statement
  • Build a team comfortable with independent Mission execution
  • Add a No Excuses Culture
  • Agree on Core Values to define your culture

Why Tim Cook is Steve Ballmer and Why He Still Has His Job at Apple

What happens to a company when a visionary CEO is gone? Most often innovation dies and the company coasts for years on momentum and its brand. apple-equals-microsoftRarely does it regain its former glory.

Here’s why.


Microsoft entered the 21st century as the dominant software provider for anyone who interacted with a computing device. 16 years later it’s just another software company.

After running Microsoft for 25 years, Bill Gates handed the reins of CEO to Steve Ballmer in January 2000. Ballmer went on to run Microsoft for the next 14 years. If you think the job of a CEO is to increase sales, then Ballmer did a spectacular job. He tripled Microsoft’s sales to $78 billion and profits more than doubled from $9 billion to $22 billion. The launch of the Xbox and Kinect, and the acquisitions of Skype and Yammer happened on his shift. If the Microsoft board was managing for quarter to quarter or even year to year revenue growth, Ballmer was as good as it gets as a CEO. But if the purpose of the company is long-term survival, then one could make a much better argument that he was a failure as a CEO as he optimized short-term gains by squandering long-term opportunities.

How to Miss the Boat – Five Times
Despite Microsoft’s remarkable financial performance, as Microsoft CEO Ballmer failed to understand and execute on the five most important technology trends of the 21st century: in search – losing to Google; in smartphones – losing to Apple; in mobile operating systems – losing to Google/Apple; in media – losing to Apple/Netflix; and in the cloud – losing to Amazon. Microsoft left the 20th century owning over 95% of the operating systems that ran on computers (almost all on desktops). Fifteen years and 2 billion smartphones shipped in the 21st century and Microsoft’s mobile OS share is 1%. These misses weren’t in some tangential markets – missing search, mobile and the cloud were directly where Microsoft users were heading.  Yet a very smart CEO missed all of these.  Why?

Execution and Organization of Core Businesses
It wasn’t that Microsoft didn’t have smart engineers working on search, media, mobile and cloud. They had lots of these projects. The problem was that Ballmer organized the company around execution of its current strengths – Windows and Office businesses. Projects not directly related to those activities never got serious management attention and/or resources.

For Microsoft to have tackled the areas they missed – cloud, music, mobile, apps – would have required an organizational transformation to a services company. Services (Cloud, ads, music) have a very different business model. They are hard to do in a company that excels at products.

Ballmer and Microsoft failed because the CEO was a world-class executor (a Harvard grad and world-class salesman) of an existing business model trying to manage in a world of increasing change and disruption. Microsoft executed its 20th-century business model extremely well, but it missed the new and more important ones. The result?  Great short-term gains but long-term prospects for Microsoft are far less compelling.

In 2014, Microsoft finally announced that Ballmer would retire, and in early 2014, Satya Nadella took charge. Nadella got Microsoft organized around mobile and the cloud (Azure), freed the Office and Azure teams from Windows, killed the phone business and got a major release of Windows out without the usual trauma. And is moving the company into augmented reality and conversational AI. While they’ll likely never regain the market dominance they had in the 20th century, (their business model continues to be extremely profitable) Nadella likely saved Microsoft from irrelevance.

What’s Missing?
Visionary CEOs are not “just” great at assuring world-class execution of a tested and successful business model, they are also world-class innovators. Visionary CEOs are product and business model centric and extremely customer focused.

The best are agile and know how to pivot – make a substantive change to the business model while or before their market has shifted. The very best of them shape markets – they know how to create new markets by seeing opportunities before anyone else. They remain entrepreneurs.

arc-2-5
One of the best examples of a visionary CEO is Steve Jobs who transformed Apple from a niche computer company into the most profitable company in the world. Between 2001 to 2008, Jobs reinvented the company three times. Each transformation – from a new computer distribution channel – Apple Stores to disrupting the music business with iPod and iTunes in 2001; to the iPhone in 2007; and the App store in 2008 – drove revenues and profits to new heights

apple-2001-to-08-arcThese were not just product transitions, but radical business model transitions – new channels, new customers and new markets–and new emphasis on different parts of the organization (design became more important than the hardware itself and new executives became more important than the current ones).

Visionary CEOs don’t need someone else to demo the company’s key products for them. They deeply understand products, and they have their own coherent and consistent vision of where the industry/business models and customers are today, and where they need to take the company.  They know who their customers are because they spend time talking to them. They use strategy committees and the exec staff for advice, but none of these CEOs pivot by committee.

Why Tim Cook Is the New Steve Ballmer
And that brings us to Apple, Tim Cook and the Apple board.

One of the strengths of successful visionary and charismatic CEOs is that they build an executive staff of world-class operating executives (and they unconsciously force out any world-class innovators from their direct reports). The problem is in a company driven by a visionary CEO, there is only one visionary. This type of CEO surrounds himself with extremely competent executors, but not disruptive innovators. While Steve Jobs ran Apple, he drove the vision but put strong operating execs in each domain – hardware, software, product design, supply chain, manufacturing – who translated his vision and impatience into plans, process and procedures.

slide1When visionary founders depart (death, firing, etc.), the operating executives who reported to them believe it’s their turn to run the company (often with the blessing of the ex CEO).  At Microsoft, Bill Gates anointed Steve Ballmer, and at Apple Steve Jobs made it clear that Tim Cook was to be his successor.

Once in charge, one of the first things these operations/execution CEOs do is to get rid of the chaos and turbulence in the organization. Execution CEOs value stability, process and repeatable execution. On one hand that’s great for predictability, but it often starts a creative death spiral – creative people start to leave, and other executors (without the innovation talent of the old leader) are put into more senior roles – hiring more process people, which in turn forces out the remaining creative talent. This culture shift ripples down from the top and what once felt like a company on a mission to change the world now feels like another job.

As process oriented as the new CEOs are, you get the sense that one of the things they don’t love and aren’t driving are the products (go look at the Apple Watch announcements and see who demos the product).

Tim Cook has now run Apple for five years, long enough for this to be his company rather than Steve Jobs’. The parallel between Gates and Ballmer and Jobs and Cook is eerie. Apple under Cook has doubled its revenues to $200 billion while doubling profit and tripling the amount of cash it has in the bank (now a quarter of trillion dollars). The iPhone continues its annual upgrades of incremental improvements. Yet in five years the only new thing that managed to get out the door is the Apple Watch. With 115,000 employees Apple can barely get annual updates out for their laptops and desktop computers.

But the world is about to disrupt Apple in the same way that Microsoft under Ballmer faced disruption. Apple brilliantly mastered User Interface and product design to power the iPhone to dominance. But Google and Amazon are betting that the next of wave of computing products will be AI-directed services – machine intelligence driving apps and hardware. Think of Amazon Alexa, Google Home and Assistant directed by voice recognition that’s powered by smart, conversational Artificial Intelligence – and most of these will be a new class of devices scattered around your house, not just on your phone. It’s possible that betting on the phone as the platform for conversational AI may not be the winning hand.

It’s not that Apple doesn’t have exciting things in conversational AI going on in their labs. Heck, Siri was actually first. Apple also has autonomous car projects, AI-based speakers, augmented and virtual reality, etc in their labs. The problem is that a supply chain CEO who lacks a passion for products and has yet to articulate a personal vision of where to Apple will go is ill equipped to make the right organizational, business model and product bets to bring those to market.

Four Challenges for the Board of Directors
The dilemma facing the boards at Microsoft, Apple or any board of directors on the departure of an innovative CEO is strategic: Do we still want to be a innovative, risk taking company?  Or should we now focus on execution of our core business, reduce our risky bets and maximize shareholder return.

Tactically, that question results in asking: Do you search for another innovator from outside, promote one of the executors or go deeper down the organization to find an innovator?

Herein lies four challenges. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates (and 20th century’s other creative icon -Walt Disney) shared the same blind spot: They suggested execution executives as their successors. They confused world-class execution with the passion for product and customers, and market insight. From the perspective of Gates there was no difference between him and Ballmer and from Jobs to Cook. Yet history has shown us for long-term survival in markets that change rapidly that’s definitely not the case.

The second conundrum is that if the board decides that the company needs another innovator at the helm, you can almost guarantee that the best executor – the number 2 and/or 3 vice president in the company – will leave, feeling that they deserved the job. Now the board is faced with not only having lost its CEO, but potentially the best of the executive staff.

The third challenge is that many innovative/visionary CEOs have become part of the company’s brand. Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Immelt, Elon Musk, Mark Benioff, Larry Ellison. This isn’t a new phenomenon, think of 20th-century icons like Walt Disney, Edward Land at Polaroid, Henry Ford, Lee Iacocca at Chrysler, Jack Welch at GE and Alfred Sloan at GM. But they’re not only an external face to the company, they were often the touchstone for internal decision-making. Years after a visionary CEO is gone companies are still asking “What would Walt Disney/Steve Jobs/Henry Ford have done?” rather than figuring out what they should now be doing in the changing market.

Finally, the fourth conundrum is that as companies grow larger and management falls prey to the fallacy that it only exists to maximize shareholder short-term return on investment, companies become risk averse. Large companies and their boards live in fear of losing what they spent years gaining (customers, market share, revenue, profits.) This may work in stable markets and technologies. But today very few of those remain.

In the 21st Century an Execution CEO as a Successor Increasingly May be The Wrong Choice
In a startup the board of directors realizes that risk is the nature of new ventures and innovation is why they exist. On day one there are no customers to lose, no revenue and profits to decline. Instead there is everything to gain. In contrast, large companies are often risk-averse engines – they are executing a repeatable and scalable business model that spins out the short-term dividends, revenue and profits that the stock market rewards. And an increasing share price becomes the reason for existing. The irony is that in the 21st century, the tighter you hold on to your current product/markets, the likelier you will be disrupted. (As articulated in the classic Clayton Christensen book The Innovators Dilemma, in industries with rapid technology or market shifts, disruption cannot be ignored.)

Increasingly, a hands-on product/customer, and business model-centric CEO with an entrepreneurial vision of the future may be the difference between market dominance and Chapter 11. In these industries, disruption will create opportunities that force “bet the company” decisions about product direction, markets, pricing, supply chain, operations and the reorganization necessary to execute a new business model.  At the end of the day CEOs who survive embrace innovation, communicate a new vision and build management to execute the vision.

Lessons Learned

  • Innovation CEOs are almost always replaced by one of their execution VPs
  • If they have inherited a powerful business model this often results in gains in revenue and profits that can continue for years
  • However, as soon the market, business model, technology shifts, these execution CEOs are ill-equipped to deal with the change – the result is a company obsoleted by more agile innovators and left to live off momentum in its twilight years
A shorter version of this article previously appeared in the Harvard Business Review.
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