The Changing Of The Guards (Again)

Last week was a doozey in Silicon Valley.  Doors were revolving. Founders were coming and going.  And at least one bold-faced name came back to her roots.

I refer, of course, to Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt, Larry Page and Meg Whitman.   

The day before announcing blow-out earnings, the Apple founder and resuscitator-in-chief said he'd be leaving his CEO post for health reasons.  Just a few days later, Schmidt said he'd be stepping up to a board-only position and that Google co-founder Larry Page would be taking the reins as CEO.  And Meg Whitman, fresh off her shellacking in the California gubernatorial race, took a board seat at HP, where four directors were shown the door-presumably for their connections to the controversially ousted Mark Hurd, HP's former CEO.  Whitman is joined by a newly appointed replacement for Hurd.

Three storied brands, each with its own legitimate claim to having changed the world.  It would be easy to dismiss these announcements as a usual reshuffling of deck chairs, but something more worrisome is in the works. 



Jobs is known for having been forced from the company he created  -- only to return to it several years later to take it to extraordinary new heights (all while making Pixar into a powerhouse and returning some sparkle to the Disney brand).  While he stepped away from Apple only temporarily a while back to deal with some tough health issues, word on the street is that Jobs won't return to the CEO role this time around. 

He is widely viewed as the heart and soul of Apple. Its senior execs have been well groomed to step into the breech, and they're impressive by all accounts, but heart and soul? I'm just not feeling it.

While other founders have come out of exile or retirement to save their companies from disaster (Michael Dell, Chuck Schwab), few achieve what Jobs did in his second time at the tiller.  And some just outright fail (Jerry Yang).

So it's hard to predict what Page's return to top-dog status will mean for Google, though outright failure seems unlikely given that Google's core search advertising product mints money no matter who's in charge.  But it's telling that the shift in executive leadership at Google comes at a time when many of the company's talented employees are jumping ship to either start their own companies or join rising stars such as Facebook.

Talk with any current or former Googlers, and you'll find they speak with real love for the company, but also nostalgia for those days when the company was truly nimble -- when ideas went from brain to fingertips to production in a very short period of time.  Today, Google is a matrixed organization with the hierarchy any large, global company requires, with much process and procedure -- one where good ideas, despite the best of intentions, can often get lost or just plain buried. 

By all accounts, Google is also looking over its shoulder at up-and-comers and is worried about its ability to innovate fast enough to maintain a competitive edge.  It's my sense, then, that by putting Page in the CEO role, there's a hope he'll be able to restore the nimbleness and innovating posture of the Google of yore. 

As I recall, this was a principal motivation for putting Yang back in the saddle at Yahoo.  His fellow Yahooligans proudly bled purple and longed for the days when Yahoo was the one to beat, when that up-and-comer that could do no wrong.  Though the conditions at Yahoo were radically different from those at Google today, Yang nevertheless was unable to bring back that loving feeling. 

HP, for its part, is a Silicon Valley granddaddy.  No one talks about the rise of the Valley and all the technological marvels it has spawned without paying homage to Messrs. Hewlett and Packard.  Still, it too is a company in search of a heart and soul.  It seems to listlessly sell an enormous number of printers, ink cartridges, servers and computers, but is stuck in something of a commodity game in many of its product lines.  Even though strategists are trying to rebrand HP a service company along the lines of IBM, they haven't quite carved out a fresh identity for themselves that is wholly differentiated and with innovation to match.

Apple, Google and HP are three Bay Area companies that are on fire by most measures.  Each delivers a bottom line that is the envy of the business world.  And their immediate futures are still bright.  But as each installs new leadership, finding that often elusive "heart and soul" will be critical for these legends of Silicon Valley.

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