Built to Launch?

I aspire in this post to be among the elite—one of the few business bloggers on the planet currently not commenting on Marissa Mayer becoming CEO of Yahoo. I have never met Marissa, but her reputation speaks strongly for her. I wish her well because I always want good people to succeed, and in this case I also want to see Yahoo succeed. I hope she reads my article about Yahoo from last year that predated her last two predecessors and figures out a way to restore much-needed competition to the landscape of search. Hmm, seems I’m writing about her. Okay, enough said. Got get ’em, Yahoo! Stop.

Now my real topic for the week—not surprisingly, also about succession.

Venture investors Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz have been steadfast in their support for keeping Founder/CEOs at the helm of the companies they back, from early blog posts on their site that state their philosophy to more recent comments in the Wall Street Journal that reinforce their sometimes contrarian assertions. Not only do they believe most deeply in the Founder/CEO success model, they have championed multiple class shares that keep CEOs in authority with majority control even without majority ownership. Their point of view is clear, consistent, and well-argued—and thus far their financial returns in aggregate have been extraordinary. They want vision, they want independence and long-term creative thinking, and they want continuity.

I am not sure I have an absolute opinion yet on absolute power for a start-up CEO; we’ll have to see how those play out over the next ten or twenty years. I do worry that without senior team loyalty and continuity, it may not matter whether a CEO stays or goes. Teamwork is what matters in today’s intellectual property centric companies, and if your team is not stable, I wonder if your company can remain so. Surely new blood is a great infusion when parsed appropriately, but it needs to be in balance, at equilibrium with a set of players we can count on.

What about the top-tier executives, perhaps a level down, who seem to jump freely from ship to ship, following their own personal muses, particularly after liquidity gives them the ability to set themselves free? Is this good for companies and long-term shareholder value, for companies with massive capitalization that are taking on investment—public or private—ostensibly with some hope of being Built to Last?

Clearly within our pressured and fragile economy, the bonding relationships between employers and employees have become increasingly tenuous. “At-will employment” is not just boilerplate in an offer letter, it means what it says, that jobs are temporal. Employees not under contract may depart a gig when they wish without much obligation, and employers may equally freely dismiss them (to the extent those decisions are not discriminatory) without much warning or explanation. Companies are predisposed to protect earnings and cost-cutting can be a tactic to achieve those goals, the favor of which gives employees good reason to always be in the market. Although there are any number of topics I can extract from that thread and will do so in the future, that is not my key focus here. This is not about everyday turnover and the anxiety it creates, it is about senior level turnover as a litmus test for investors.

Reality is, a lot of high-profile employees in high-profile start-ups seem to jump ship early these days. I am not so sure that they are cashing in as much as their attention spans or personal desires lead them from one thing to the next. Some examples:

• Two of Twitter’s co-founders who served as CEO left the job and their day-to-day roles, although one returned, not as CEO, but as head of product. The third co-Founder also left day-to-day responsibilities.

• Facebook’s most recent CTO, who joined the company in 2008, departed voluntarily almost immediately following the IPO. Facebook also lost an extremely high-profile CFO in 2009, and a number of other prominent C-level executives have churned through in the years leading up to the IPO.

• Groupon’s former COO, a Silicon Valley veteran brought in to steady the ship, spent about a year on the job day-to-day before moving to an advisory role.

• Yahoo continues to make headlines with five CEOs in five years, although the situation here is different. The last one to leave on his own timeline was media veteran Terry Semel, who preceded the five. Perhaps more curious at Yahoo is the level below CEO, where the turnover has been even more active, voluntary or otherwise.

• Google is now being celebrated as iCEO University, for which it has reason to be proud with strong executives like Sheryl Sandberg, Tim Armstrong, Dick Costolo, and now Marissa Mayer all willingly accepting significant challenges. My sense is this is sustainable as long as founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin stay on the job (guided by the advice of Eric Schmidt), but at some point the spinning off of entrepreneurs may take a toll as it did at once great legendary giants like Sun and Silicon Graphics (also keep an eye on HP).

It is hard to fault someone with talent and wealth for leaving a position with an “old company” to tackle a brand new start-up concept. They have the creativity, they have the yearning, and they can absorb the personal risk. Yet these aren’t exactly old, mature companies they are leaving, even in internet time. If talent retention is critical to continuity and leadership is demonstrated by example, what does it say about loyalty to the “rank and file” millionaires of Silicon Valley hungry to pursue their dreams when so many of the top dogs or near top dogs are endemically antsy?

Can you build a company that is Built to Last when many of your brightest employees—especially those made wealthy with capital they can reinvest—are thinking Built to Jump? Should shareholders in emerging high-valuation private and public companies be concerned with the New World of high turnover that is largely viewed as the way things are? There is already risk enough in holding stakes at the high valuations these companies will need to grow into, but if these are essentially knowledge-based companies where the key assets go home to their families each night, how much should owners worry whether they come back tomorrow or start a new company that’s more fun? Are these companies Built to Last or Built to Launch—launch themselves to early prominence, and launch the careers of the stars who emerge from their ranks?

Retention and the war for talent are surely talked about a lot, but I wonder if these are just buzzwords now, if key stakeholders really are losing sleep over the next spun-off employee or just prepared to roll with the punches. For anyone who has ever led a company, the notion of culture is no small issue, and companies where the culture is strong have a heritage of continuity that gives them a shot at longevity. Do we now assume Creative Destruction is such a powerful force that short-lived companies are a norm, regardless of culture and continuity? I wonder, and look forward to checking the Fortune 500 again for a few more decades to see how this plays out—not to mention the long-term trend on aggregate net job creation we so desperately need for our economy to go the distance.

I am not suggesting that employees should stay past their welcome or interest level, and in no way would I ever want (or tolerate as a manager) any form of stagnation in the form of tenure-based retention or retention for continuity’s sake. The case I am trying to make is for a tiny bit of balance in an Old World concept known as loyalty—which has been very good to me on both sides of the desk for most of my years on the job. It has been said that in today’s world loyalty is between individuals, not within companies, and there is every reason to understand how that has come to be. Yet if companies are not loyal to employees and employees are not loyal to companies, can these kind of companies really be long-term investments for shareholders? Said another way, if the system and talent are not demonstrating loyalty and commitment, should investors?

Eyes on HP

Hewlett-Packard is not just any company. It is iconic. Like Disney, Ford, General Electric, Apple, Microsoft, and a few others, it is not only part of business history, it is deeply wound into the fabric of American history. Modern Silicon Valley pretty much begins with Hewlett-Packard—the foundations of information technology as a new sector of productivity, the power of innovation, the hardware/software product life-cycle, the beginnings of west coast venture capital, and the splitting atom of employees spinning off from the mothership to become founders themselves. The Hewlett-Packard story until recently is a magnificent tale.

HP WayBill Hewlett and Dave Packard really did start in a garage. One of the very first products they sold was a precision audio oscillator, to of all people, Walt Disney. They captured their thoughts in a book, The HP Way, reinforcing the need for a company to have a mission and a vision. When we talk about a job being more than a paycheck, a lot of that comes from the work ethic and values of Hewlett and Packard. They set the stage for a generation of entrepreneurs. They made it okay to fail, as long as that failure contained learning that was honestly disseminated. HP on an engineer’s resume was gold. The sales and marketing team was second to none.

It is almost impossible to understand the impact of a global company with over $125B in annual revenue and 325,000 employees changing CEOs four times in six years, not including the interim CEOs between hires. Carly Fiorina, Mark Hurd, and Leo Apotheker each left the company for different reasons, and while the HP board is now taking a lot of heat for perhaps not scrutinizing their decisions around these leaders carefully enough, that is unfortunately water under the bridge. The company is now under the direction of former eBay CEO and recent California Gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, who will need to move quickly and definitively to steady the ship.

HP has seen numerous mergers, divestitures, and acquisitions throughout this period of seismic change, and each time one strategy replaces a previous version, the impact is costly. Whitman has said she believes the strategy in place at HP now is largely correct, so if the issues she is facing are managerial, perhaps we will see a positive impact sooner rather than later. My guess is she will dig into strategy a bit more in the coming months, and then move aggressively to make her mark. The sooner she can restore confidence with customers, employees, and shareholders, the better it will be for all those who do care deeply about the company’s future.

Why is HP so important in the scope of business enterprise? When you dig into exceptional business books like Built to Last and Good to Great, both by Jim Collins, you realize just how hard it is for even the strongest corporations to go the distance in an environment of creative destruction. As Collins points out so often in the data he cites, only 62 of the original Fortune 500 companies named on the original list in 1955 remain there in 2011.

The great former CEO of Intel, Andy Grove, talks at length about the “strategic inflection points” facing companies at every stage of their evolution—particularly technology companies—in his critical study Only the Paranoid Survive. Grove makes it all too clear how easy it is for a well established organization with vast resources and expansive markets to miss a fundamental change in the continuum of progress, only to catch its error to late to be fixed, having been lapped by any number of competitors.

Where Collins approaches the challenge largely from the aspect of defining and reinforcing a brand, Grove looks at it from the point of view of ceaseless innovation and refusal to accept the status quo as satisfying. Both approaches are vital, but neither has a chance in the face of organizational chaos. Products, features, and benefits must remain in constant flux, but ideals and values are their balancing counterparts. Remove the rudder from a very fast ship and it really doesn’t much matter what is powering the engine room.

It takes both leadership and strategy to steer one of these mammoth ships through the rough seas of business change, and simply taking those notions for granted is the easiest way for a company to fall from grace. Robert Burgelman, a colleague of Andy Grove who teaches strategy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (and is also a former board member of mine), tells us that strategy becomes real when we apply resources to concepts. We see that very much in action now at HP, but we see those resource decisions changing too frequently in real-time. The leadership of the CEO drives that strategy from concept to action, from white board idea to investment cost center, and if strategic shifts are reversed before cost centers become profit centers, value can be destroyed at an astonishing pace.

No CEO or strategy is meant to last forever, but change them too often, and costs pile up without reward. The toll on staff morale is immeasurable, and the lost jobs from reversing decisions may never be recovered. Employees feel the impact in loss of income, shareholders get pummeled. Customers just move on.

It’s time now for HP to turn the corner. As I said, HP is iconic, it is Silicon Valley. We need it as an example in the tech sector of a company that is Built to Last and can continue to grow from Good to Great. HP dates to 1939. It is the standard-bearer for all the great companies that followed its mantra, were born in garages, and now have office space in the adjacent neighborhoods. If we want to believe companies like AOL and Yahoo can find new creative life through reinvention, we have to have models for long-term success. We need succession plans that show great companies can transcend their founders and achieve new levels of success by ensuring that values are more than words in the employee handbook, and that they are liberating, not confining, as long as the leaders who embrace them help guide their teams through increased commitment to innovation with coherent planning and rigorous evaluation. No shooting from the hip, but no fear of change.

On a pragmatic level, we also need the jobs, particularly in HP’s home state of California. Surely the majority of new jobs in our nation will come from small business and startups, but we can’t afford to lose the ones we have in the enterprise, not for the families who depend on them, not for the state budget that needs the payroll tax. Because of its deep history in the community and legend, HP leads the ethos in Silicon Valley in so many ways, its stability is a reflection of hope, its instability a drag on the headlines when we need a shot of optimism.

This is a once in a lifetime career and company defining opportunity for the new CEO at HP. It’s like getting the chance to manage the NY Yankees after three bad seasons no one saw coming. They might be on a losing streak, they might have made a bunch of bad trades, but they’re still the Yankees. Everyone knows they can win, that they have the resources to win and a history of winning. Meg Whitman just needs to ask herself, what kind of game does she want her team playing, who does she want in the line-up, and where does she need to better read the competitive landscape. A little consistency in management will go a long way.

Let’s hope Hewlett-Packard has it right this time. There is already new criticism of HP’s board that they acted too quickly in hiring Meg Whitman, that she should have first been named interim CEO, or that her background is not right for the job. Their decision has been made, so I am rooting for the new CEO. This isn’t politics, this is P&L. It is critical that Meg gets this right and succeeds. A win for her in this role is a win for all of us.