I was with BlackBerry this month and had a chance to listen to their impressively entertaining CEO, John Chen. I was clearly also impressed with what they presented. I do a lot of writing on turnarounds and BlackBerry’s is actually one of the more successful. And it struck me that a sense of humor and to a certain extent, candor, may be one of the subtle reasons why it is going better than most.
Now it doesn’t hurt that, during a time when CIOs are having anxiety attacks over the number of unprotected mobile devices on their network running unapproved apps and malware, the firm has the most powerful cross platform mobile management and security tools in the segment. But I think we should capture what Chen uniquely brings to the table as a best practice.
The first part of any turnaround is to get a critical mass of people to believe the firm can be turned around. That’s tough because once a firm brings in a turnaround CEO folks put it on death watch. Competitors start dancing gleefully on the company’s not-yet-filled grave.
Strangely enough, this generally happens while a company still has a critical mass of customers and significant revenue but costs and trends are working against them. As a result, folks connect the dots and project a message into the future where, unless the new CEO is successful, the company will likely die. But like the guy in the Monty Python movie “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” the firm isn’t dead yet and actually, with the change, is generally better off than it was.
To change perceptions you have to build trust first. Generally when you have a turnaround situation there have been a lot of promises made that haven’t been met prior to the new CEO coming on board. We tend to trust people we like and we tend to like people that are candid and have a good sense of humor.
I remember a few years back I sat in front of a top executive on his second day on the job. He preceded to tell me things that he couldn’t know yet about the company he’d joined, and then he moved to trying to blind me with technical jargon.
I left the meeting convinced that he was doing to kill the company he was trying to turn around – largely because he just wasn’t candid about the fact that with just a couple days on the job he really didn’t know enough to actually know what to do yet. We could have chatted about prior successes, and it would have helped if he’d had a sense of humor because we’d likely have bonded. This would have formed a foundation where, once he did have a clue, we could have had a much more powerful conversation.
John Chen comes across with candor. He clearly had a period where he was learning about BlackBerry but once he had a foundation he made a series of promises that he has continued to keep. Reducing the firm’s cash burn, pivoting it into more of a services and software company, and clearly focusing the firm back on its loyal customers who have unique work and security requirements.
I believe, as apparently do many of BlackBerry’s customers and even Samsung now, that BlackBerry is unique when it comes to providing a comprehensive solution to the security problems inherent in the BYOD mobile world we find ourselves in.
Wrapping Up: Humor and Candor
For a turnaround to work the company has to get people to believe in a future where the company is vibrant and capable again. I don’t think you can get there if folks don’t first reestablish trust with the firm and its executive staff. Critical to that is the candor and yes, sense of humor, in the new CEO. Because if you like the CEO you are more likely to want him or her to succeed. And if you learn to trust them, then when the company is turning the corner like BlackBerry is you’ll believe that too.
If the CEO is more of a political animal telling you what you want to hear but not establishing a relationship or doing what they say, then I doubt you’ll ever turn the corner and this likely speaks to why so many CEOs have failed at firms like HP and Yahoo. The CEOs never connected with the people in a way that established trust nor did they do what they said they’d do and any humor often came at their expense.
I’d like to see more CEOs follow Chen’s example and be a bit less political and a bit more real. When BlackBerry fully reemerges I think we’ll find Chen’s personality and approach were one of the key reasons for this positive result.
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