Part one of a two part article on life at the top.
Friends of Jean-Marie Descarpentries tell a tragic and moving story of why he resigned as CEO of French systems giant Groupe Bull in September. With his life enveloped by the momentous tasks of restructuring, privatizing and returning the once moribund Bull to growth and profitability, Descarpentries was a hard man to get hold of. So much so that, not long ago, he found himself unable to take a telephone call from his son – a son who was slipping into clinical depression. When, shortly afterwards, the son committed suicide, the tragedy brought home to Descarpentries how his priorities had become completely inverted. And when he resigned saying he wanted to spend more time with his family, he certainly wasn’t using the phrase in its usual euphemistic sense. That departure contrasts with the commonly held perception of the lifestyles of high-tech CEOs, a perception fueled by endless lounge bar anecdotes about the lives of power and glamor led by Oracle’s Larry Ellison and Microsoft’s Bill Gates – the parties, the fast cars, the globetrotting in private jets, the pampering PAs. When Ellison buys a fighter jet or Gates adds another wing to his $40m Seattle home, it is front page news. When the chauffeur of a well-known CEO is spotted at a major European IT convention, escorting late-night ‘visitors’ to his boss’s room, the rest of the industry chatters. But the reality for the hundreds of other CEOs of technology companies is much more prosaic. The tales are of grueling working weeks, of evenings and weekends trapped with customers, analysts or the press, of a third of their life spent on the road, but also of colossal ‘compensation’ plans. So what drives and inspires them? Perhaps, above all, the creation of wealth and power – for themselves and their colleagues – is the primary motivator, and there can be no doubt that high-tech CEOs are well compensated for their efforts. But finding time to spend that money is hard, given the long hours and punishing travel schedules which keep many CEOs away from their families. Even with the power to delegate much of the daily grind, the job of CEO is much more than nine-to-five. I accept as part of the job that I have to work 60 to 70 hours a week, says Eric Garen, CEO of high-tech training company, Learning Tree. I assume that’s fairly typical. It is. Jerry Dusa, head of networking products vendor Digi, grumbles good-naturedly, I’m in first thing for breakfast meetings, and I’m always the last to leave. Even age does not seem to halt the pace. At 67-years-old, Ted Smith of document management software vendor, Filenet, may not be putting in the 12 to 14 hour days that Garen talks of, but he is still in the office at 8am and doesn’t leave until 7pm – that is when he is actually at corporate HQ. Much of the working life of CEOs is spent not in the office, but on endless tours of duty, meeting with customers, investors, the press, and analysts, speaking at trade shows, or visiting international offices and subsidiaries. Most report spending up to 30% of their time as ‘road warriors’. And much greater absences are commonplace in times of change or crisis. An initial public offering, the launch of a new product line, the execution of a turnaround, the build-up to an acquisition or a major partner agreement can mean prolonged sojourns. Earlier this year, NT server software vendor, Citrix Systems, was plunged into crisis when its supposed partner, Microsoft, announced that it was considering launching a product which would compete head on with Citrix’s technology. The company’s CEO, Roger Roberts, immediately embarked on a grueling tour of the US, reassuring customers that the company’s future was not under threat, while founder and chairman, Ed Iacobucci, spent six weeks camped out in a rented apartment close to Microsoft’s Redmond, Washington campus, battling to thrash out a cooperative deal with the software giant. More predictable development can be just as taxing. Supply chain software vendor Manugistics has big plans for overseas expansion. As a result, the company’s CEO, Bill Gibson, has found that he is spending as much as 60% of his time traveling lately. Endless hours in the air mean taking the office with you. I get the laptop out and never let the guy sitting next to me pull me into a conversation, says Oracle CEO Ray Lane, especially if it’s a three-battery pack transatlantic haul. Tours, however, are viewed as a necessary evil. You can sit in HQ all you want, says Smith of Filenet, but there’s nothing like getting out there, it’s the only way to understand how your company works.
By Jessica Twentyman
Not that there isn’t plenty of ‘insight’ close at hand. When the laptop batteries run out and the Wall Street Journal has been digested, CEOs can always pick up one of the hundreds of books on management theory that litter airport bookstores. The industry elite widely scorn these as ‘gimmicky’ and ‘feeble’, even ‘a bunch of crap.’ One exception, however, crops up repeatedly. Geoffrey Moore, author of Crossing the Chasm and Inside the Tornado, is widely respected, working as a strategy adviser to many of the industry’s leaders. If you really want to be successful, says Ted Smith, Moore’s books are a must-read. This view is seconded by Bob Gordon of Apertus Technologies, who says, I generally can’t stand faddish management [books], but there’s some good basic thinking in Moore’s books. Despite the lack of faith in the theories of most management gurus, CEOs are eager to wax lyrical about their own approaches, and their talk is peppered with such phrases as, I’m very big on empowerment and I believe in creating opportunity through change. Given the younger average age of high-tech CEOs compared with that of other industries, it is perhaps unsurprising that flatter hierarchies and a more relaxed management style is the order at many companies. According to Dusa of Digi, Management through fear and intimidation will only ever achieve short-term results, and hinders creativity and loyalty. As Jim Manzi, former CEO of Lotus Development, once said: My greatest fear is having people walk around Lotus saying, ‘Jim says we should do this’ or ‘Jim says we do that’. The truth is Jim doesn’t know what these people are talking about because there is a ton of stuff going on in the company. My goal is to make sure that everybody’s working in a common direction. However, this style of management demands a high degree of trust from managers, and can involve a gigantic leap of faith for some. Marty Sprinzen, CEO of application development tools vendor, Forte Software, recalls how he used to try to be involved in ‘driving every process’. When this became unmanageable he had to learn how to back out gracefully of making smaller decisions. Now, he jokes, I want to delegate everything, because at the end of the day, there’ll still be a full-time job left for me to do. Bill Gibson of Manugistics agrees that delegation is the key, and that if mistakes happen, they happen. My staff don’t come to work saying, ‘Hey, how can I screw up today?’, he jokes, adding that managers are generally appointed on the basis of their ability to be right in the vast majority of cases. Leadership, agrees Dusa, cannot be delegated – it has to be earned, it doesn’t come with your business card. However, among older executives, more traditional forms of management persist. Smith describes his style as authoritarian, believing that his staff still need to know who is boss. I am the person who makes the ultimate decision, he says. Having reached the pinnacle of their organizations, who do they look to as role models? Despite the animosity often targeted at Microsoft, many CEOs grudgingly admit to admiring Bill Gates. The man’s ability to execute is incredible. His success is quite incredible, says Garen at Learning Tree. There’s no way I would disparage the guy, says another, perhaps safe in the knowledge that there are plenty who will. Often the high-tech CEOs find role models in many of the people they have worked with through the years. David House, CEO of Bay Networks, spent 22 years working with Andy Grove at Intel, who became his mentor as well as a close personal friend. The two men co-owned a sailboat, says House, and spent many weekends sailing in San Francisco Bay. When Grove published his book, Only the Paranoid Survive, he inscribed House’s copy with the message: I thought about you a lot while writing this book. There’s not much new to you here – you starred in the movie. Brian Sparks, CEO of software house Caldera, meanwhile, spent many years working with Ray Noorda at Novell. He’s a quiet man, says Sparks, but enormously well-aligned in terms of philosophy. His advice has been enormously useful.