Top 5 traits of successful tech CEOs

Chief exec role in IT industry never easy with fierce competition and intense pressure, and to be successful rather than sacked, here are five tenets to abide by.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

It takes a fine balancing act for technology CEOs to be successful, popular--and keep their jobs. This includes having the foresight to spot trends and making changes accordingly, powering cost reductions while pushing innovation, and managing subordinates as well as board members and investors, analysts pointed out.

"Surviving and thriving in the technology landscape is not easy; competition is fierce and change is rapid. A great tech chief executive officer requires an ability to look at the macro environment and make judgments necessary to compete in this rapidly changing environment," said Michael Yoshikami, CEO and founder of YCMNET Advisors.

His comments come after head honchos of Apple and Yahoo left their companies within weeks of each other--albeit under strikingly different conditions. Apple's Steve Jobs stepped down from day-to-day operations in late August, ending his widely perceived to be hugely successful CEO tenure at the company behind the popular iPhone and iPad.

In contrast, Carol Bartz was fired by Yahoo's board over the phone on Sep. 6, as the company saw revenues slide and struggled to compete against other Internet and social media juggernauts such as Google and Facebook.

Google earlier in January this year also had a CEO shakeup, with co-founder Larry Page becoming CEO, as predecessor Eric Schmidt stepped down to become executive chairman.

Referring to Jobs, Jayesh Easwaramony, vice president for Asia-Pacific ICT practice at Frost & Sullivan, said the former Apple CEO was "loved by the organization, media, peers and consumers for his ability to create a differentiated user experience by exemplary product design".

Those aspiring for similar success, as well as to avoid the sack, need to possess or hold firm to five traits or tenets, analysts shared with ZDNet Asia.

1. Have foresight to notice changes, flexibility to make changes.
Easwaramony said it is very critical for tech CEOs to understand the rapidly changing dynamics of the tech, Internet and media industries in order to stay relevant and focused.

"Larry Page returned to drive Google when he thought the company had over-diversified and wanted it to focus on doing fewer things effectively," he said in an e-mail interview.

Ovum's research director for IT in the Asia-Pacific region, Steve Hodgkinson, added that CEOs continuously "rebirth themselves" as leaders to adapt as the market and/or the needs of their company change.

Yoshikami identified the ability to "anticipate technology trends and taking bold action to capture opportunities" as a crucial trait. Salesforce.com, he noted, knew it earlier than most organizations that the cloud is where the world is headed. Under guidance of CEO and chairman Marc Benioff, the company has since captured a huge market share in the online CRM (customer relationship management) business and its first-mover status will likely serve it well in the future, he added.

2. Pay attention to the micro details.
Not only is macro-level foresight key, but a keen eye for micro detail is important and necessary to succeed in the highly competitive ICT industry, Yoshikami noted. "There is simply no margin for error in the tech space."

Focusing attention to details and delivery of a product or service that exceeds expectations is a trait epitomized by Jobs, now chairman of Apple's board, he said.

Hodgkinson concurred that meticulousness is essential, as successful CEOs don't ignore or tolerate internal structural and process imperfections.

According to him, they will find all ways to enable changes within the organization so that it's always aligned with changes in market and customer needs. They will also focus on and replicate the things that work well and fix the ones that don't, he added.

3. Take a balanced approach to cost-cutting and innovation.
Referring to the book "Innovator's Dilemma" by Clayton Christensen, Easwaramony noted that some big companies have lost out to smaller players because they "focused on their cash cows for too long and did not anticipate the shift in industry dynamics".

Mark Hurd, chief executive of Hewlett-Packard from 2005 to 2010, was "a great CEO when it came to cost-cutting but ended up compromising on innovation which has now started hurting HP", he pointed out.

Now under new CEO Leo Apotheker, who took over the reins last November, the world's soon-to-be-former top PC vendor announced in August that it intends to spin off its PC business and drop WebOS products to focus solely on enterprise software.

A Bloomberg report earlier this month noted that Yahoo's Bartz was fired because her cost-cutting initiatives--including layoffs--still did not help the company much in its market and revenue performances for online search and ad dollars.

4. Focus on cohesive management of employees, board and investors.
Hodgkinson also advised CEOs to create an open culture based on trust and transparency, both externally and internally, as well as promote collaboration between employees and partners.

Yoshikami concurred that pulling together all stakeholders of a company to move toward a common goal is very important.

"Eric Schmidt and now Larry Page seem to have found a way to move all parties at Goggle toward one common goal of open access and driving revenue for their core business--search [which] they recognize is really the key to business success for the company", he said.

Easwaramony added that a good tech CEO should manage his or her board and set clear expectations on key metrics in the short- and long term.

Strained board relations led to the departures of ex-HP CEO Carly Fiorina, who was asked to step down in 2005 due to differences in strategic execution that was exacerbated by poor stock performance, and Yahoo's Bartz whose abrasive management style "never earned her bouquets at Yahoo's board level despite the measures she took to cut costs", he noted.

5. You are as good as your team--hire the best.
The technology industry, Easwaramony highlighted, is a highly complex industry where having the right people on board for key functions is crucial.

Although Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg sets the vision, he has an "excellent chief operating officer in Sheryl Sandberg given her background as chief of staff for the U.S. Department of the Treasury, and also complements Zuckerberg's hands-on style well", he said.

CEOs must "hire the C-team with care and precision so that they can succeed", he advised.

The reason being, as Ovum's Hodgkinson summed up: "Get the best ideas from the best people."

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