Charm as a leadership currency seems to change with every wave of silicon valley engineering companies.
In the old days of the early semiconductor firms the CEOs were often gruff white men. Most came up through the ranks of real products, dirty products, chemicals in the manufacturing process, union labor forces… and charm was not a necessary part of the job. Like the famously paranoid Andy Grove of Intel and the crusty Wilf Corrigan of LSI Logic. They didn’t have to be charming — they had to be in with their boards and drive global market growth for their products. They barely even worked the customers after the first few because it was an engineering and distribution driven business.
Then we had the wave of computer companies like Sun Microsystems and HP and large enterprise software firms like Oracle. Now the CEO’s had a bit more charm but it was B2B charm of the likes of Scott McNealy and John Chambers. Stay focused on the major customers and charm the sell-side analysts that covered them. Build a world class team, set high goals for your sales team (give rousing speeches at Quota Club meetings in Hawaii), pay well and drive global growth to large customers.
But now we have the wave of internet and media companies where charm on a global scale matters. This new wave of leadership focuses on accessibility, charming the media, long on user-experience and number of users, shorter on hard engineering. Old school style back fires as Carol Bartz found out at Yahoo. Open communications like Larry Page’s recent letter, mea culpa as Reed Hastings did at Netflix, charm on a global scale as Arianna Huffington did for the HuffPo and the relentless visibility of the very charming Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook fame are part of the global marketing machine.
The first group of CEOs were often engineering based and visible only in print — rough was OK. The second group was often sales based — smoother but customer focused and sometime visible on CNBC. Now we live in the era of the media-savvy CEO who is visible everywhere, all the time. Still technical, but the darlings of the tech press are the ones who know how to work the media, and social media, to their advantage.
But wait. Even today charm only goes so far. You still have to produce top line and net income growth for your investors. Charm and modern communication skills are essential in the media and internet world which is so over covered today, but they are a necessary but not sufficient condition for B2B success (unless, of course, you can get bought for technology before you figure out your revenue model).
So if you are in a B2B engineering-based product business focus on the fundamentals of your technology and your customers, but don’t forget to hone your charm skills for this new era.