Passion Is the Thin Line Between Success and Failure

Carol Bartz got fired last week — the Yahoo Board handled it badly, and she went ugly. Steve Ballmer is also seen as a failure both inside and outside Microsoft, and it is widely held that the only reason he hasn’t been fired is that he and his best friend, Bill Gates, own the Microsoft Board.

On an even larger scale, President Obama’s approval ratings indicate that if the U.S. could “Bartz” (yes her name is now a verb meaning “to fire over the phone”) him, we would. On the other hand, Steve Jobs left Apple voluntarily and Apple’s investors, employees and customers would do almost anything to get him to come back.

The Bartz-Jobs contrast is very sharp, but it showcases a choice that both Ballmer and Obama, or whoever eventually replaces them, could make to be successful — a choice that AMD’s board may have actually made correctly (I’ll get to that at the end). It has a lot to do with that magic word “passion” and that’s what I’ll look at this week.

I’ll close with my product of the week, one of my favorite software products, Corel PaintShop Pro X4.

Succeeding as CEO

You know, there are actually formal courses on how to be a CEO. The reason I know this is IBM put me through the program while I was there, and I’m sure other older firms have similar programs. I’ve since spent a lot of time studying both successful and failed CEOs while having the honor of advising a number of them.

What I find particularly fascinating is that boards, even when they are made up of experienced members, don’t seem to really know what to look for in a CEO, and mistakes like those that were made with Bartz and Ballmer are common.

Ironically, on paper, both Bartz and Ballmer look better than Steve Jobs does. Were Jobs not an Apple founder, I’ll bet even Apple’s own board would have taken either over Jobs if given that choice back in the ’90s. Remember, they hand-picked Gil Amelio before Jobs, and they only got Jobs because Amelio bought Jobs’ company NeXT. Amelio looks very similar to a Bartz or a Ballmer on paper, but he didn’t do well at Apple. He didn’t do well at all — there was no passion.

Compare that video to this one of Jobs when asked about going after market share. Here is another video that showcases Jobs’ passion. Here is a video from an earlier time at Microsoft, and then today. This goes to the core of the problem. The very aspects of Steve Jobs that made him a legendary CEO — aspects largely mirrored in Bill Gates himself (who actually made a bigger impact) — are not valued by the people selecting CEOs. This creates a problem not only in the selection, but also when it comes to growing the new CEO into the job.

Boards, often made up of experienced CEOs, are generally ineffective as well. Part of the problem is that folks like Jobs and Gates are exceptions on boards, and another part of the problem is that they often don’t recognize the aspects of themselves that make them successful. Instead, they may feel somewhat inadequate because they don’t have the degrees and breadth of experiences folks like Ballmer and Bartz have.

So what makes folks like Jobs and Gates Different? In a word: Passion!

Passion for Product

You see, most CEOs think the job is about meeting with investors, keeping subordinates on budget, and schmoozing with major customers. For most, it seems to be largely about maximizing their compensation while minimizing their commitment. As long as they can say product buzzwords and keep acronyms straight, they are good.

But folks like Bill Gates, and particularly Steve Jobs, have a passion for products. In fact, with Steve, you can see a huge difference between the products he cared a great deal about — like the iPhone — vs. those he really didn’t, like Apple TV. Even for these stars, products that they don’t have much interest in do poorly. Hired CEOs like Bartz and Ballmer tend to have more Apple TVs and few, if any, iPhones. Or put differently, if they were handed a billion dollars and told to start a company, the one they are running would be nowhere near the top of their list.

Passion is infectious. Passion drives folks like Jobs and Gates to ensure the product is successful. Passion overwhelms the desire to overfocus on containing budgets, and it guarantees that enough resources are provided to make success almost a foregone conclusion. Ballmer is clearly not a tech toy or PC guy; it isn’t even clear if anyone at Yahoo, let alone Bartz, really knows what Yahoo’s product is. The Huffington Post is a good example of a Yahoo-like company that has passion at the top (at least before AOL bought it).

For folks like Jobs, Gates and even Huffington, it isn’t being CEO that is important — it is the pleasure of defining the product, and this passion drives the related CEOs to excellence. If you think about it, though, the best generals (Patton, for instance) love battles — they don’t love being generals. The best chefs don’t love running kitchens — they love cooking masterpieces. And the best presidents love driving their unique agenda — they don’t love the job.

Funny thing is, I predicted Obama would likely fail for this very reason back in 2009 and suggested he look to Steve Jobs for a lesson on passion.

Message to Bartz, Ballmer, Obama and Other Potential CEOs and Presidents

Here is the deal. Find something you have a passion for, and use that passion to drive success. If Ballmer had a passion for PCs, smartphones and tablets, they would have succeeded. If he wants to be a successful CEO, he needs to find — or found (he is very wealthy) — a company that creates something he is passionate about. Microsoft clearly isn’t that company, and he’ll continue to starve Microsoft to death, or continue to force folks who have passion out of the company (Bob Muglia now at Juniper Networks) because he’ll see them as threats — and they will be, because they’ll see Ballmer as an obstacle.

Bartz should have never taken the job at Yahoo because she clearly had no interest in a Web property; bad mouthing the board (which also made a bad choice) doesn’t fix that. She needs to take ownership and learn from her mistake.

Obama made a lot of passionate promises when he ran for president. It is clear that either his passion has significantly waned — or he really didn’t have it in the first place, which is why he is failing. If healthcare was important to him, he wouldn’t have let Nancy Pelosi create the nightmare Obamacare has become. He will lose because he is increasingly seen as a gutless wonder now. In short, if he doesn’t find his passion, he’ll follow Jimmy Carter (not an uncommon comparison) as a one-term president. It may already be too late. Cutting taxes won’t secure re-election, but giving a crap might.

Wrapping Up: Finding Passion

One final point: It was clear Bill Gates lost his passion in the late ’90s, and he set an example by changing jobs to do something he is passionate about. He is happier, and he is more successful than he would have been had he not made the change. Perhaps it is his example — not Jobs’ — which the others should emulate. People don’t follow leaders who have no passion about where they are trying to lead, and folks who have a passion for something find failure unacceptable.

And that, my friends, is why folks who don’t have passion often fail — because they do find failure acceptable. They are just doing a job. I think that is why Obama will be a one-term president as well; he has lost his passion. The guy who ran isn’t the guy holding the job.

In the end, that’s the magic that I think separates a Carol Bartz from a Steve Jobs. If boards like Yahoo’s take this passion message to heart, they’ll likely find that they will be more successful with selecting their next CEO. And if they don’t, well take a look at Yahoo’s board for the likely outcome, and wish them good luck with their next job. You know, as I come to a close, AMD’s board may have gotten it right. If you look at this rare video of their new CEO, Rory Read (whom I got a chance to chat with last month), you get an idea that passion might have been at the core of their selection criteria.

By the way, this is something to think about in your own job, if you don’t love what you are doing, find something you do love. You’ll be better at it and happier as well, and I know this from personal experience.

Product of the Week: Corel PaintShop Pro X4

Product of the Week

Speaking of passion, PaintShop is one of those little known products that have a passionate user base. It is an amazing offering that has many of the features of Adobe Photoshop, but it is nowhere near as expensive or as hard to use.

I was a professional photographer for a while, and it still is a bit of a secret passion, though not one I have the time to indulge in often. The nice thing about PaintShop, though, is if you take a day with this product, you can easily reach semi-pro skills and do some amazing things with pictures, the same level of competence with Photoshop might take a week or more.

Corel PaintShop Pro X4

Corel PaintShop Pro X4

That’s why a lot of pros actually prefer PaintShop Pro; they want to be out taking pictures — not taking technical classes to keep up on complex tools. The other thing about PaintShop, and the reason I picked the new 4th-generation product: The Corel group that makes it has a passion for the product. You can see this passion when they demo it. They can tie each new feature back to an actual customer request and the request actually makes sense, which is rather unusual in my line of work. Much more common are features that leave you wondering just what the vendor was thinking. Corel sent me a free demo to play with, and I’m impressed.

So, if you are into photos, check out PaintShop Pro X4. It is made by a group of folks who actually give a crap about their products — and I know a few CEOs who could learn a thing or two from them.

Rob Enderle

Rob Enderle is a TechNewsWorld columnist and the principal analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.

1 Comment

  • Bravo, Rob… you’re dead on when you say boards don’t know how to hire CEOs. They hire off resumes and credentials; they really don’t know how to ask questions about the candidate’s strategic approach. And they do get scared by passion. Good thing Jobs & Gates founded the companies they ran.

    However, passion alone (or vision, to put it in another context) will not get the job done. Someone — if not the CEO — still has to be able to execute, to realize the vision. The highway is littered with the carcasses of people who had great visions but did not know how to make them happen, or to identify, hire and nurture the people who could.

Leave a Comment

Please sign in to post or reply to a comment. New users create a free account.

Technewsworld Channels