Presidential Candidates Can Be CEOs

Last week, HP’s ex-CEO and current Republican Spokesperson Carly Fiorina, in a poorly thought-out attempt to help McCain win, indicated that none of the presidential or vice presidential hopefuls could be CEOs like she was.

Given she was fired, I was thinking, gee I hope so, but she intended the comment to mean they weren’t as qualified as she was. Having studied to be a CEO myself and studied a number of successful ones, I believe she couldn’t be more wrong. In addition, last week the main portion of the Microsoft campaign launched, and since I’m one of the few folks who have been fully briefed on it, I thought it might be interesting to explain what they are attempting.

In addition, we’ll have my product of the week. It’s an offering that reminds me of the first iPod and the first Palm PDA because it is so incredibly tightly focused — in this case on e-mail — and the product is called “Peek.”

What Makes a Good CEO?

I was fortunate enough to participate in two CEO training programs while I was trying to set my early career goals. These programs are amazing, and you tend to meet the very best in each and every major field, from accounting to sales and human resources. While they teach core skills, they didn’t, to my surprise, really teach what makes a successful CEO. So I studied successful and unsuccessful ones from Thomas Watson Jr., one of the best who ever lived, to John Sculley. My big thought at the time was that I was vastly more like Sculley than I was Watson, and I realized I’d never be a great CEO, nor would I enjoy it, and discovered I enjoyed studying these guys more than I wanted to be one of them. Thus I ended up an analyst.

I had thought Carly Fiorina had spent some time thinking through why she was fired, but evidently I’ve spent more time researching what actually happened than she has. I think her mistake, and the one most others make, is that people think that a good CEO needs a certain skill set that can be defined by business skills and knowledge of their industry. If that were true, Steve Jobs would suck as a CEO instead of being considered one of the most successful, and Bill Gates never would have made it either, because he lacked most of the formal training needed to run a company.

The reality is that successful CEOs, particularly those who don’t leave their company as a disaster zone, tend to have strong people skills. These skills result in three demonstrated behaviors. They can find good, trustworthy people who are loyal. They know how to maintain that loyalty. And they know how to delegate and lead. HP’s Mark Hurd is one of the rare perfect-storm CEOs who has these core skills and a breadth of both business and segment skills as well.

Why Successful Politicians Can Make Great CEOs

What makes a CEO job dramatically different than any other job in a company is that the CEO can’t possibly be successful as an independent contributor. That doesn’t mean some don’t try, and generally the result is ugly.

Politicians, if they are successful enough to make it to the Presidential ranks, do so by building and taking care of supporters, leading (you can’t dictate to volunteers or they’ll quit) those supporters to victory, and assuring the people close to them won’t betray them at a critical moment. I’m sure we’ve all watched a lot of politicians flame out because they trusted the wrong person or group.

Carly Fiorina’s comments indicate she, an experienced CEO, hasn’t yet learned this. This is because the comments, regardless of her beliefs, were designed to make her look superior to those she was supposed to be supporting, and they helped the other side. It is this same kind of behavior that cost her HP’s top spot. If she doesn’t correct this behavior, her career in politics will be shorter than her CEO run and related only to how much money she kicks into the effort.

In any case, every one of the candidates for either president or vice president could be successful as CEOs, though each would be uniquely suited for different industries and firms of different sizes.

Microsoft’s Campaign Moves to Phase One

Last week we talked about the teaser spots that the campaign was starting with and that Seinfeld would shortly be dropping out as the campaign moved into its first major phase. At the end of last week that happened, and you began to see a series of magazine spots and TV ads that now are on message. That message is that Windows, all versions, is taken for granted and shouldn’t be.

This is the nature of any product that has been in market for a long time but where marketing was under-resourced. Over time, people take what the offering does for granted and increasingly focus on the negatives, creating a significant risk of displacement for the vendor that owns it.

These spots will showcase real people talking about accomplishing real tasks on Windows in an effort to get people to realize they are taking Windows for granted and see the product differently. Realize this is only the first major phase of the campaign and others will follow.

Windows Faux Black Screen Example

As an interesting side note, I was traveling to Budapest last week (have wanted to go ever since seeing the old James Bond movie “From Russia with Love”). Flying United, we were on a new 747 configuration with a really advanced Panasonic entertainment system. Only problem was the system kept black-screening. The guy sitting next to me started cursing out Windows but as I saw the system reboot it was clear it was Red Hat Linux, not Windows. This showcased how we’ve come to associate Windows with certain behavior even though, such as in this case, our opinion is reinforced by an error on our part.

This is part of what this campaign is attempting to correct to get us to remember the good at least as well as the bad and perhaps gain a more accurate overall perspective. It also showcases why not investing in sustained marketing on any successful product is foolish. Microsoft deserves credit for finally realizing and correcting this mistake. If you are wondering why I’m spending so much time on this, it’s because I spent much of the time since Windows 95 launched trying to convince them to do sustaining marketing.

Product of the Week: Peek

One of the things that made the first iPod and the initial Palm Pilot more successful than their counterparts was the tight focus both products had on their core functions. It was this focus that helped make the products less intimidating and vastly easier to use. Peek starts in much the same way, as it is simply focused on text e-mail, is relatively inexpensive (under US$100 and $20 a month, this compares to a smartphone at a more typical $200 and $60 to $120 a month). It reminds me a lot of the early RIM BlackBerry and Goodlink devices that were vastly easier to use and less intimidating than the vastly more capable current generation.

The Peek is designed for folks whose e-mail needs are slight and who probably aren’t as well connected now as they think they need to be. It’s more of a Soccer/Hockey Mom product than one for folks like most of us. It could be particularly handy for those of us who are getting tired of using snail mail for some of our Luddite relatives, and it could be a godsend in some of these instances. Because it is simple, because it reminds me of a number of earlier successful products and because I refuse to use snail mail these days, the Peek is my product of the week.

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


  • Having been both minion and master, I couldn’t agree much more with your remarks. John Scully was perhaps the worst mistake Steve Jobs ever made with Apple. I worked for Apple during Scully’s reign and he simply never understood Apple’s culture, product space or why some of his best people had what appeared to be the roughest edges.

    Many of the most successful Apple executives(in terms of job performance) had a deficiency of high profile education, modest social skills and the unfortunate mind set that keeping Apple moving forward was a much more important job skill than appreciation of wines, Armani and trophy wives. These folks simply knew how to pick the right people and motivate them to do their jobs in the best, most effective way possible. A great example of this is Bill Coldrick, one of my all time heroes.

    In my opinion, Scully and his choices were directly responsible for Apple missing a great opportunity to take 15-25% market share from Microsoft.

    On the other hand I was a perfect CEO…. except for a bad habit or two such as occasionally second guessing people whom I had hired for their expertise and consistently failing to recognize when I was getting too far ahead of my markets.

    Being CEO is a lot harder than it looks and defining what to look for in a CEO candidate is no picnic either, but I think you have nailed the key characteristics quite well.

    Thanks for a though provoking article.

  • You are so right about the skills of a good CEO -all of the good leaders I have known knew how to bring out the best in people. To succeed in business, you have to be able to move people to exceed their own expectations. I have been very fortunate to have a number of bosses that understood that. It makes it tough now that I AM my own boss – the dog is not that inspirational. I felt sorry for Carly – she really made herself look bad with those comments and you’re right it doesn’t seem like she learned much from her experience or has a very good PR handler.

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