Must CEOs be of the digital generation to understand mobile?
By Chantal Tode
August 28, 2013
Is mobile know-how an essential quality for CEOs?
Call it the mobile generation gap. As mobile disrupts how consumers interact with one another and businesses at a faster pace than previous transformative technologies, one question this raises is how important is mobile know-how for a company’s leader?
Steve Ballmer’s impending departure from Microsoft has been met with copious commentary on his perceived lack of expertise in mobile. The complaint is similar to what has been said about many Baby Boomers, that because the digital revolution, and especially the quick growth in smartphones, did not happen until later in their lives, they simply cannot understand mobile in the same way that someone who has grown up with it can.
“Steve Ballmer has been criticized for not recognizing the power of mobile technology or how the tablet market would evolve, and I agree with those criticisms,” said Vanessa Horwell, chief visibility officer of ThinkInk, Miami Beach, FL. “But that failure is not due solely to age, and I think it’s wrong to put an arbitrary age limit on when CEOs embrace mobile and when they don’t.
“Is it more likely an older person will struggle to embrace new technology?,” she said. “There’s plenty of data that shows how our brain activity slows with age and our ability to accumulate new information deteriorates with time.
“In other words, people do become set in their ways as they age, comforted by predictability and standard ways of doings things. But an individual’s performance must be viewed on a case by case basis and can’t be generalized, especially when it comes to their vision and innovation.”
Ballmer is on the way out at Microsoft
Mr. Ballmer is not the only example of a company leader whose supposed lack of mobile expertise can be tied to a generational gap.
BlackBerry, which started out strong in mobile but is faltering today because it failed to adjust quickly enough to the growth in touch-screen technology, has had a series of leaders who, it could be argued, displayed a conservative streak reflective of an earlier business era that prevented them from envisioning truly innovative ideas.
Certainly many recent breakthrough digital business ideas have come from young visionaries who live, eat and breathe in a digital world. One of the most well-known examples is Mark Zuckerberg, who started Facebook while still in college.
However, a familiarity with digital technology alone may not be enough to successfully run a company in the mobile era.
Instead, the kind of managerial experience that can only be gained from years of managing a company through frequent ebbs and flows is also necessary.
“[Mr. Zuckerberg’s] stewardship hasn’t been without shortcomings that arguably an older, more experienced CEO might have anticipated and better corrected or prevented,” Ms. Horwell said.
“For all of its success, the company has struggled to find ways to monetize its mobile presence, even as a growing number of users prefer mobile as their dominant access point,” she said.
“In this instance, Facebook might benefit from recruiting older marketing and sales professionals who’ve ‘been there, done that.’”
Twitter is another example of how technology vision does not necessarily translate to strong leadership.
In its early years, there were numerous reports of management problems that threatened to slow its growth.
“I wonder if it's the opposite: the ‘old’ guys know what it takes to build large-scale infrastructure to support millions of mobile devices; not all young guys do, see the challenges Twitter faced when it was getting started, the site was a yo-yo,” said Carl Howe, vice president of research and data sciences at Yankee Group, Boston.
“It's really about management and technical skill, not how many miles are on the odometer,” he said.
One important criterion for successfully running a company these days is being able to react to a quickly changing market.
Given Microsoft’s significant size, this means that the company’s next CEO may be better served by having the necessary managerial acumen than mobile know-how.
“If you intend to work with the mobile operators, it’s a lot easier to score a meeting with the right people at AT&T and Verizon if you have the kind of personal network that an old-school CEO has,” Mr. Howe said.
“I just recommended three old guys, Lou Gerstner, Sam Palmisano, and Warren Buffett, to run Microsoft as interim CEOs simply because they have large company skills and the abilities to make elephants dance. Frankly, most of the young CEOs who ‘get’ mobile aren't remotely qualified to run a 100,000 person organization yet,” he said.
However, understanding mobile will also be an important asset for Microsoft's next CEO to have.
Without a mobile-savvy leader, the company risks missing out on the next opportunity in mobile, whatever that might be.
"Ballmer’s replacement needs to go beyond managing the MS leviathan with a mobile first win back a vertically integrated cross-screen strategy," said Gary Schwartz, Toronto-based author of “The Impulse Economy” and “Fast Shopper, Slow Store.”
"Just as Steve Job’s consumer-centric focus lead to capacitive touch and pinch & zoom with drove mobile adoption and unnatural loyalty," he said.
Dreamer or salesperson?
What is clear is that finding a company leader who has both the necessary mobile and leadership experience can be a challenge.
This is why it is so important for company leaders to surround themselves with a talented support team.
“Every product, new device or way of doing something needs the dreamer and the salesperson,” Ms. Horwell said.
“The dreamer thinks big; they imagine the world as it could be,” she said. “The salesperson knows the world as it is, believes in the dreamer’s vision, and must find ways to encourage the contemporary world toward the dreamer’s dream.
“Great CEOs, young or old, recognize their limitations and build teams of executives who fill in their professional gaps.”
Chantal Tode is associate editor on Mobile Marketer, New York
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