How Tech CEOs Are Redefining the Top Job

Pioneering leaders roll up their sleeves, create, and stay relevant.

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Image courtesy of Brian Stauffer/theispot.com

Editor’s note: This article is part of a new MIT SMR series about how leadership is evolving in a digital world.

It was the kind of bluntness that silences a room. In 2017, John Chambers, then CEO of Cisco Systems, delivered a disquieting message to participants in Harvard Business School’s executive education program for CEOs. “A decade or two ago, CEOs could be in their offices with spreadsheets, executing on strategy,” he said. “Now, if you’re not out listening to the market and catching market transitions, … if you’re not understanding that you need to constantly reinvent yourself every three to five years, you as a CEO will not survive.”

During his 20-year tenure at Cisco Systems, Chambers had presided over an era of tremendous growth, during which revenue rose from approximately $1 billion a year to $49 billion.1 In his talk at HBS, he argued that the key to his success was his ability to evolve along with the market. Chambers cautioned the CEOs that all companies — even ones that aren’t principally in tech — are in fact digital and need versatile leaders who can see revolutions coming. “Out of my top 100 executives,” he said, “only one person has remained in a key functional position for more than five years. … Everyone else had to be moved to different roles.”

One in a hundred. With those daunting odds, Chambers spoke to his audience’s fears of obsolescence: In a 2017 survey, leading executives confided that their skills were depreciating at twice the rate of only a decade earlier.2 But knowing that you have to stay relevant is not the same thing as knowing how. How can CEOs hone their skills? How should they focus their energy and attention? Chambers shared one of his own strategies: “I spend more time with startups than with any other segment of our customer base because startups are where the new, creative ideas come from. They think exponentially, as opposed to linearly.”3

Indeed, looking at how executives spend their time reveals what they consider essential to their role. So we studied a small but revealing sample of the most highly regarded CEOs in recent history — Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google, Bill Gates of Microsoft, and the late Steve Jobs of Apple — in search of commonalities. While executives at different companies necessarily spend their time in different ways to some extent,4 we found a key similarity among our subjects: All of them were directly involved in inventing and producing offerings even as they steered their respective ships.

Such a hands-on approach may sound like a distraction from strategic thinking, but we will argue that some of the most effective 21st century CEOs are those who participate in a broad range of activities and continually expand their base of knowledge. The five leaders we studied are considered exemplars by both management experts and the popular press, and — because they are all pioneers in the technology sector — their habits offer valuable insights at a time when more and more industries outside of tech are driven by digital advances. Their passion for innovation is legendary. Jobs personally chose key design elements for the iPhone, such as Corning’s Gorilla Glass,5 just as Gates famously reviewed every line of code his programmers wrote in Microsoft’s early days.6 Bezos acted as “designer-in-chief” of the Kindle e-reader.7 And Page and Brin, of course, invented the PageRank algorithm, which powers Google’s search engine.8

Each of these CEOs leads (or led) a company in the business of inventing on behalf of its customers, suggesting that their patents might be a good proxy for both how much they produce and how committed they are to developing relevant expertise. We therefore examined all the published U.S. patents that listed any of these CEOs as inventors at their respective companies. In the process, we saw how they’ve reimagined the role of the CEO. (In our research, we call leaders who fit a similar profile Producer-Expert-Leader-Managers, or PELMs.) These are precisely the kinds of CEOs that Chambers urged his audience at Harvard to be: They understand their products intuitively because, to no small degree, they helped create them. They impress their customers with their technical prowess. And they inspire their staff because they work not just above but also beside them.

It has been estimated that a quarter of high-tech companies are run by CEOs who double as inventors.9 We propose that this is the future for CEOs across many sectors — and that this future is already upon us.

Their Patents Are Telling

Even the busiest CEOs in the world allocate considerable time to invention and production. In our sample, Jobs scored the highest number of total patents with 620, and Bezos the second-highest with 155. Our search of Derwent Innovation’s patent database also showed that Jobs had the most patents as team leader, or “first inventor,” whereas Bezos had the distinction of being the sole inventor on 11 patents, putting him well ahead of the other four executives in our study. Curious to see how the CEOs contributed to their companies’ overall patent portfolio, we found that Jobs and Bezos once again rose to the top, with 3.2% and 1.3% respectively. (See “Produce or Perish.”)

Is it possible that these CEOs simply liked inventing things? Of course. But if innovation were just a hobby for them — a way to stay connected to their roots — we would expect their patenting to remain constant or even decline as their companies grew in size and complexity. Our findings? All five did significantly more patenting as time went on.

Jobs, to take the most extreme case, published just one patent at Apple prior to his departure to found NeXT computers in 1985. He returned to Apple as interim CEO in 1997 and — as if he had heard the starting gun of the new millennium — was soon publishing patents every year. The height of his productivity came in 2010 with 87 patents. In a fitting coda to his singular life, Jobs even published 219 patents posthumously, either because the patenting process takes nearly two years on average10 or because work he had launched was completed by members of his team after his death. Jobs tended to be a supercharged anomaly in many ways, but Bezos, Page, Brin, and Gates followed similar tracks, consistently publishing patents between 2011 and 2017. Bezos’s high-water marks arrived in 2009 with 20 and 2017 with 18.

The clear takeaway is that all five CEOs found patenting to be of increasing importance over time. In fact, the multiplicity of patents that Jobs completed when he returned to Apple (400 from 1997 to 2011) suggests that it numbered among his top priorities. The others might have lagged quantitatively, but they were obviously learning the same lesson: Expertise and innovation are now essential parts of a CEO’s portfolio.

So Are Their Publications

It struck us that publishing in trade journals would demonstrate an ongoing commitment to production and expertise every bit as clearly as patenting does. For instance, consider Lisa Su, who worked as an engineer before she rose to CEO at Advanced Micro Devices (AMD). In a 2017 interview with The New York Times, she said her background informed her thinking as a leader: “That’s where the intuition comes in. I can’t say I’m an engineer anymore, but I started as an engineer, and so I have enough intuition about just where to set those goals.”11 Su’s career as an engineer also taught her the value of sharing what she learned as she learned it.

We looked at Su’s publishing history and found that, earlier in her career, she wrote technical articles for various journals associated with the Institute for Electronics and Electrical Engineers (IEEE). One article, “Measurement and Modeling of Self-Heating SOI nMOSFET’s,” has been cited over 150 times. According to Semiconductor Research Corp., only 2% of articles in the field inspire more than 100 citations.12 SRC estimated that 35% of Su’s citations came from other authors in the industry, indicating that her peers were discussing her work and integrating it into their own. She was not just taking part in the conversation — she was helping direct it. The IEEE recognized Su’s contribution by nominating her to be a fellow in 2009.

It probably goes without saying that we wouldn’t be lingering over Su’s publishing bona fides if she had abandoned research and writing when she assumed leadership of AMD. She did not. Su presented a paper on heterogeneous computing at the 2013 IEEE International Solid-State Circuits Conference and a paper on multichip technologies at the 2017 IEEE International Electron Devices Meeting.13 She was also elected into the National Academy of Engineering in 2018 for her work in developing silicon-on-insulator technology. For Jobs, Gates, and the like, we used patenting activity as a proxy for the time that top CEOs now dedicate to expanding their expertise and contributing to production. For CEOs like Su, we suggest that publishing carries much the same significance: She, too, rewrote the conventional CEO job description to remain relevant.

The same could be said of John C. Martin, who served as the CEO of Gilead Sciences from 1996 to 2016. While CEO, Martin published extensively on various biochemical subjects relevant to the company’s development and production of HIV antiviral drugs.14 In 2019, the National Academy of Sciences honored him with its Award for Chemistry in Service to Society — proof, if any was needed, that he was not a conventional manager in the 20th century mold but one of his industry’s leading lights.

As John Chambers warned at Harvard, 21st century CEOs must rethink their jobs if they want to save them. The success of the executives we studied is inextricably bound to their expansive, practical vision of what it means to lead. Once, when reflecting back on his decision to hire John Sculley as CEO at Apple, Jobs admitted that he had made an error in judgment: “When the sales guys run the company, the product guys don’t matter so much, and a lot of them just turn off.”15 He elaborated, “Sure, it was great to make a profit, because that was what allowed you to make great products. But the products, not the profits, were the motivation. Sculley flipped these priorities to where the goal was to make money. It’s a subtle difference, but it ends up meaning everything: the people you hire, who gets promoted, what you discuss in meetings.”16

It’s worth pausing here. In Jobs’s view, Sculley wasn’t the sort of CEO who could attract and motivate engineering talent. That’s a significant failing in such a competitive landscape. If Bezos, for instance, didn’t somehow inspire his employees with his example and his expertise, they might have stampeded for the exit years ago. Amazon, after all, has always been less of a workplace wonderland than its tech rivals. As Brad Stone writes in The Everything Store, “Google offered its employees lavish perks, like free food, office gyms, and day care for their children.” And Amazon? Its employees “still had to pay for their own parking and meals.”17 But Bezos, for the reasons we have examined here, has coaxed greatness from his team: “Despite the scars and occasional bouts of post-traumatic stress disorder, former Amazon employees often consider their time at the company the most productive of their careers.”18 Google’s Page has made much the same point: “Deep knowledge from your manager goes a long way toward motivating you. And I have a pretty good capability for that.”19

As the digital revolution continues to transform industries, the leadership trends we’re discussing here are no longer specific to tech. When Netflix was still a DVD company, Reed Hastings didn’t just push the envelope as CEO; he actually helped invent the envelope — specifically, the bold red one used to mail DVDs inexpensively and safely. (Hastings shares the patent with several other people.20) Since Elon Musk became CEO at Tesla Motors in 2008, he has published five patents, acting as lead inventor on all of them. Jun Young-hyun, CEO of Samsung SDI, in the renewable energy sphere, has had an extremely productive run, likely because he has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and previously served as president of his company’s memory division.21 Jun has registered 145 patents at Samsung SDI. The most recent came in 2017, the same year he was made CEO. His experience in innovation no doubt made him an especially impressive contender for the top job.

CEOs can’t have outdated skill sets any more than they can sell outdated products. Even if they don’t aspire to the all-consuming role that Jobs embraced at Apple, they must be voracious about knowledge and passionate about contributing to their companies’ products in a ground-floor way. In fact, we would argue that these considerations are crucial not only for current CEOs but also for succession plans. Boards should consider a candidate’s track record as a producer and expert and how those muscles could make for an even stronger future leader.

Topics

(Re)Learn to Lead

(Re)Learn to Lead is a limited article series that distills wisdom from prominent experts on the future of leadership in a changing world. The article series will help you evaluate your leadership skills, know what you need to learn, and get ready for the changing demands of today's workplace.
See All Articles in This Series

References

1. B. Groysberg, J.Y. Cheng, and A. Lobb, “CEO Succession at Cisco (A): From John Chambers to Chuck Robbins,” Harvard Business School case no. 417031 (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2016).

2. B. Groysberg, S. Abbott, and K. Connolly Baden, “Resolving to Stay Relevant in 2018,” The Official Board, January 2018, www.theofficialboard.com.

3. Quotes are from J. Chambers, class sessions and after-class interviews, Executive Education Sessions for CEOs, Harvard Business School, Boston, Feb. 1, 2017, and March 17, 2017.

4. O. Bandiera, L. Guiso, A. Prat, and R. Sadun, “What Do CEOs Do?” working paper 11-081, Harvard Business School, Boston, February 2011; and M.E. Porter and N. Nohria, “How CEOs Manage Time,” Harvard Business Review 96, no. 4 (July-August 2018): 42-51.

5. W. Isaacson, “The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs,” Harvard Business Review 90, no. 4 (April 2012): 92-100.

6. M. Weinberger, “The Rise of Bill Gates, From Harvard Dropout to Richest Man in the World,” Business Insider, Dec. 26, 2017, www.businessinsider.com.

7. B. Stone, “The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon” (2013; repr., New York: Back Bay Books, 2014): 331.

8. S. Brin and L. Page, “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine” (Computer Science Department, Stanford University, Stanford, California, 1999).

9. E. Islam and J. Zein, “Inventor CEOs” (presentation at the American Social Sciences Association 2018 General Meeting, Philadelphia, Jan. 5, 2018).

10. “Data Visualization Center: Your Window to the USPTO — Patents Dashboard,” United States Patent and Trademark Office, October 2018, www.uspto.gov.

11. A. Bryant, “Lisa Su on the Art of Setting Ambitious Goals,” The New York Times, May 20, 2017.

12. R.K. Cavin III, V.V. Zhirnov, and S.M. Webb, “SRC: Celebrating 30 Years,” Semiconductor Research Corp., 2012, www.src.org.

13. L.T. Su, “Architecting the Future Through Heterogeneous Computing,” in “2013 IEEE International Solid-State Circuits Conference Digest of Technical Papers” (San Francisco: IEEE, 2013); and L.T. Su, S. Naffziger, and M. Papermaster, “Multi-Chip Technologies to Unleash Computing Performance Gains Over the Next Decade,” in “2017 IEEE International Electron Devices Meeting” (San Francisco: IEEE, 2017).

14. For example, see W.A. Lee and J.C. Martin, “Perspectives on the Development of Acyclic Nucleotide Analogs as Antiviral Drugs,” Antiviral Research 71, no. 2-3 (2006): 254-259.

15. Quoted in Isaacson, “The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs”: 97.

16. Ibid.

17. Stone, “The Everything Store”: 195.

18. Ibid.: 327.

19. Quoted in M. Helft, “Google’s Larry Page: The Most Ambitious CEO in the Universe,” Fortune, Nov. 13, 2014, www.fortune.com.

20. L. Calonje, R. Carrillo, T.R. Dillion [sic], et al., “Mailing and Response Envelope and Method of Making the Same,” U.S. Patent 7,401,727B2, filed May 6, 2004 and issued July 22, 2008.

21. “Samsung SDI Names Memory Chip Veteran as New CEO,” Korea Herald, Feb. 28, 2017, www.koreaherald.com.

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Comment (1)
Raghuram Yaramakala
An excellent article on leadership by Boris Groysberg and Tricia Gregg.
John Chambers' observation "And they (CEOs) inspire their staff because they work not just above, but also beside them" is very true, not just for Tech companies, but also for companies in other sectors, including Manufacturing.

Vizag Steel, India, where I was earlier working, went for Capital repairs of Blast Furnace- 1 in the year 2000. It was a 24x7 humongous operation, lasting 48 days. Dr.BN Singh, the then CEO of the company, and the chief architect of it's  great turn around, used to visit the work site regularly to know the situation at ground zero, guide, and work with the team there. And this was a big morale booster for the workforce at the site. It is nearly two decades now after Dr.Singh's departure from the organization, but no wonder, he is still revered and fondly remembered by the company's collective.