Successful senior leaders? In search of the beef

Xerox : The Seattle Mariners of the High Tech Industry

You know, I’m trying really hard not to be ‘that guy’, .. the disgruntled former employee with an ax to grind, ranting on his former employer, the one who done him wrong.  The problem is, I lived this insanity for 12 years and when I see articles like this one, on current CTO Sophie Vandebroek and the importance of work-life balance and a focus on hiring more female engineers, I have a hard time containing myself from  publicly questioning what are the traits of successful leadership?  By what measure do we decide someone is worthy of a writeup..  to be held up as an example for others to follow?

A blog post like the this one is so easily misinterpreted, it demands copious amounts of up-front disclaimers, otherwise it’s so easy to be erroneously labeled a woman-hater or a racist or you name it.  That’s the last thing I want so I want to be abundantly clear on this issue.  At the end of the day, all I ask is for reader to understand a particular point of view, nothing else.  I seek to do no individuals any harm.  I’d like to believe I’ve moved on in a very positive way since my days at Xerox.  Live is good.  I love my new job.  The work is very interesting.  My co-workers are great.  I’m thriving and the change has been just what the doctor ordered.  In no way am I wallowing in self-pity here about the loss of what once was, at good old Xerox.

While I miss the interactions with the local folks at Wilsonville and a few at other sites, I do not miss reading the communiques’ of Sr. Management, whom I have no respect for what-so-ever.  Truth be told, I think they are an arrogant group of buffoons who, if provided a 50 million dollar lab with the world’s top scientists, couldn’t manage their way to see one useful money making product surface in their lifetime.

My hope is that they will eventually meet their fate, and I hope that’s sooner rather than later for the benefit of those left behind.

The topic of successful women in the workplace is an interesting one, especially given the recent media attention given to Sheryl Sandberg and her book Lean In.  I have not read Lean In, but I agree in principle with the notion that women should be encouraged to Lean In in the work environment and make their voices heard.  They should not let gender be a barrier at any time.  If they have good ideas, by all means, don’t be shy, let’s hear what they have to say.  I don’t know anything about Sheryl other than what I saw on a 60 Minutes interview, but I must admit she was very impressive on camera, at least to me, and in my estimation, likely deserving of the accolades she was receiving at Google, and then Facebook in her new role as a Senior Leader.  So good for you, Sheryl.  Congratulations.  It sounds like you’ve done a great job adding value to your company.  I don’t begrudge you your millions and I’d be proud to work in your organization if the opportunity were ever there.

What drives me nuts about Xerox (as I posted earlier in an inside look at the real Ursula Burns ), is that the senior leaders spend so much time and energy promoting the company persona ( which is an extreme distortion of the truth ), that they forget what they are there for in the first place — to run a technology company and surface new products so that the company can grow and profit.

First and foremost, Xerox likes to promote the idea that they value a diverse workforce.  The image they like to project is, “We are the premier place to work for women and minorities.”  I have no issue with a diverse workforce.  None.  Zilch.  Nada.  I participated in annual college recruiting trips where giving the nod to women and minorities was policy.  Not just encouraged, it was policy.  I won’t go into details here, but without a doubt, the stated ‘policy’ was borderline affirmative action and even (gasp) reverse discrimination, which as a white male, trouble me a bit.  But I looked the other way for a while and tried my best to get on board, even though I questioned the intelligence of the direction as well as the fairness and legality of it.  Later on I figured out the underlying reason for all of these ‘policies’.    Xerox cares deeply about its corporate image in this regard. It wants a top 10 ranking in Diversity, Inc. and it’s willing to jump through copious hoops and spare no expense to get it.  Not that this has helped the bottom line in any way that I can see.  It is what it is.

So hopefully that’s enough full disclosure and up-front qualification about my motives for publishing an opinion on a very controversial, practically ‘no-win’ topic like criticizing a company for their endless promotion women for well, just being women who have attained Sr. Level positions.  Ursula Burns and Sophie Vandebroek both qualify.

So here’s the rub on Ursula and Sophie.  I’m sure they are both savvy individuals.  There’s no denying they’ve attained Sr. Level positions in a fortune 500 Company.  I just have one question.  When do I get to read an article about Ursula or Sophie that states a business accomplishment that stands on its own merits whether the person was male or female?  Something that resulted in the company making millions because of their insight or management style or whatever.  I don’t really care.   I want to read about a new invention.  A management decision.  A fork in the road decision that resulted in a new direction that was prosperous for shareholders and employees alike.  I want to learn why the millions that are being directed towards these Sr. Execs’ salaries and bonuses are worth every penny!

There’s no shortage of articles on Ursula and Sophie as ‘powerful women’, and to be sure, Ursula as CEO of Xerox, commands a ton of power.  All the fuss about a minority women making the Sr. ranks would be a great story and she’d have legions of followers if only there were some meat to it.  The numbers appear to suggest failure vs. success.  Xerox stock isn’t skyrocketing under Ursula’s leadership, it’s tanking.  At 26%, Ursula has the lowest approval rating of any Fortune 500 CEO on glass door.com  .  By contrast, even Larry Ellison, who has a reputation for being pretty ruthless at times with his employees, weighs in with an 82% approval rating.   Something’s not right with Ursula with a rating that low because if it was just a case of “She’s ruthless but gets results”, she’d have a much higher rating.  She’s that unfortunate combination of ruthless AND no results.

Anne Mulcahy obtained notoriety for the Xerox ‘Turnaround’ that happened in early 2001.  The stock price went from $19 a share down to under $5, and through some restructuring and selling off pieces of the business, she was able to instill a bit more confidence in investors so the stock rallied back to the high teens.  Ursula officially took the helm as CEO in 2009 when the stock price was $6.81 a share, but she’d been running the company as President long before that and saw the price has dipped from the mid-teens down to $8.80 where it is today.  Here’s the long term chart.  This is a success story?  Isn’t this a little like Little League where they give out participation trophies just for putting on the uniform once in awhile?

The Xerox Innovation Group and PARC hasn’t invented any revolutionary new products under Sophie’s tenure as CTO, it’s the same old story of Xerox missing the boat on key technologies.  It doesn’t matter if the director of player/personnel managed to develop Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, and Alex Rodriguez into superstars, they won’t be making money for the Mariners franchise for long.  Like the Mariners, Xerox is a farm team for the rest of the league.  And it’s even worse than this because the entire outfield has been outsourced to an Indian Partner.  The management team concluded that the pitching staff is so awesome that it’s unlikely any balls will make it to the outfield, but if they do, HCL Technologies will be available via phone support to direct the other players on the field on the best course of action.  Just submit a ticket first.

In fact, it’s so bad under Sophie’s leadership, that Xerox has pretty much abandoned the notion of participating as a Technology Leader and instead, moved towards a Services model.  Have you seen the new commercials?  Xerox : Call Centers R Us.

They can’t get there fast enough because well, there are no new inventions to product-ize.  Or maybe there are and I just don’t know about them.  I’d love to be proven wrong, but just once, I’d like to pick up an article on Ursula or Sophie and read about something tangible to the business that justifies the accolades that are constantly thrown at them via articles and media attention.  Instead, I read about Sophie and how she’s keenly aware of work-life balance, and the importance of hiring women engineers.  That’s all good fluff, but give me an example of how any of this has benefited Xerox’s bottom line.  Just one example.  Please?

Steve Jobs had a reputation of being a total jerk to his co-workers and employees, but he got results.  So when I read about the successes at Apple, I can at least link a person’s behaviors to the outcome.  I may not like the behaviors, but at least it’s possible to say yeah, Steve’s demanding personality along with his deep understanding of engineering and technology, probably had something to do with driving the Apple engineering teams to crank out excellent products.  I’d feel the same way if it was Stephanie Jobs. Either way, it’s an interesting story to read and the point is, it’s about success.

What I don’t like to read, is stories about senior leaders making the rounds as key-note speakers, with nothing underneath the story to support why there’s is a ‘success’ story.  Near as I can tell, with Sophie, it’s a story because she’s a CTO and a woman.  With Ursula, it’s a story because she’s CEO and she’s both a woman and a minority.  How about a story about the latest invention?  Or a stock price surge?  Or a new direction that has panned out?  I can easily articulate 5 dumb decisions that have not panned out by Ursula, not the least of which would be massive amounts of outsourcing that fly completely in the face of helping her precious diversity agenda.  Ironically, with the outsourcing movement to India, no single person has hurt diversity in the workforce at Xerox more than Ursula Burns.  She can lay claim to elaborate diversity initiatives around the college hire process, for what, 3 positions?  Meanwhile, key engineers of all persuasions are leaving in droves to go work for a company willing to invest in innovation.  Why doesn’t Diversity, Inc write about that?  Instead it’s this constant barrage of “Ursula made another top 10 list of powerful women” and “Sophie’s great.  She went to MIT and has a PhD from Cornell, so she’s awesome.  What else do these senior leaders bring to the table besides their ability to climb the corporate ladder?

So I’m back to, Where’s the Beef?

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