Has the rock star CEO finally left the tech business?

It can be catastrophic for companies to be associated with one name and then lose that leader

Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer: one of the last of the tech chief executives who has wide public recognition, an extensive history in the industry and a forceful and singular personality. Photograph: Reuters/Lucas Jackson

Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer: one of the last of the tech chief executives who has wide public recognition, an extensive history in the industry and a forceful and singular personality. Photograph: Reuters/Lucas Jackson

 

Is the stage finally going dark on the era of the rock-star technology chief executive?

The question arises with the imminent departure of chief executive Steve Ballmer from Microsoft. He is one of the last of the tech chief executives who not only has wide public recognition, and an extensive history in the industry, but (like him or not) a forceful and singular personality.

From the point where technology took off as an exciting industry with a major public profile – I’d argue, in the mid 1980s or so – a number of these personalities, not always successful or likable but always highly visible, has occupied the chief executive seat.

There was Ballmer’s predecessor Bill Gates of course. Steve Jobs at Apple. Larry Ellison at Oracle. Scott McNealy at Sun. Michael Dell at Dell. Meg Whitman at eBay. A succession at HP, from Hewlett and Packard themselves on to Carly Fiorina and Mark Hurd. Marc Benioff at Salesforce. com. Ken Olsen at Digital. John Chambers at Cisco. Lou Gerstner at IBM.

You can define a rock star chief executive in a number of ways. Sometimes, especially within an industry or among investors and analysts, it means someone with a strong business profile.


Defining personality
But I think that’s too broad. In my book, the true rock star chief executive is a person who is both so strongly associated with the company that the two are virtually synonymous (this is the often the case with the company founder), and also a defining personality. You have to feel like you know what they are actually like.

That’s why I wouldn’t include, say, Yahoo founder Jerry Yang, or Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey, or Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Some are just too obscure outside the tech industry. None has a personality that is prominent and tangible – not forgetting that Zuckerberg only seems knowable because an actor portrayed him in a popular film; and that was, at the end of the day, fiction.

Even if the character in The Social Network was true to the real Zuckerberg, we’d not have a clue without the film. But pretty much all of us had a good sense of Steve Jobs’s personality or Bill Gates’s.

By contrast to Brin and Page, Google’s former chief executive, and now chairman, Eric Schmidt is (was) a rock star CEO. I feel I know what Eric Schmidt is like, while Page and Brin remain vague and undefined – even though Page is now Google’s top man (a transition that caused some concern, in part due to his invisibility compared to Schmidt).

Many of the old guard rock star chief executives are gone – deceased, retired or off the radar: Jobs, Hewlett and Packard, Olsen, Gerstner, McNealy, Fiorina. Hurd is at Oracle in a senior position, perhaps being groomed as Ellison’s successor, but far lower in profile than his HP days.

Chambers seems to have gone to ground, or maybe it’s more Cisco isn’t still seen as a headline tech act. Whitman attempted to move to politics, with a failed run for California’s governorship. A faded Dell is at the centre of a bid for his company and, if successful, may be back up in rock star position if he drives Dell successfully into new areas.


Golden oldie bad boys
Of the list I started with, I’d only rank Larry Ellison and Benioff as still in star position – with Ellison perhaps moving, Rolling Stones-like, into the golden oldie bad boys at this point. He’s wealthy, sails yachts, flies fighter jets, likes making controversial comments, is prickly, and until recently, jousts publicly with Benioff.

Perhaps the demise of the rock star tech CEO is linked to the steady decline of the corporate user conference and big technology shows, with their high-profile chief executive keynotes. ComDex, which featured Gates for years, is dead and gone; its Las Vegas replacement, CES, was never as monumental a show.

It’s widely acknowledged Jobs’s fame grew thanks to his meticulous and often magical “Stevenotes” at MacWorld and then, Apple product launches or developer conferences.

Still rockin’ Ellison, meanwhile, runs and keynotes at one of the biggest remaining corporate shows, Oracle OpenWorld, later this month in San Francisco.

Perhaps it’s better for the era of the rock star tech CEO to quietly pass into history. It can be catastrophic for companies to be strongly associated with one name, and then lose that leader. Or conversely, to recover its brand after the departure of a poor one. But still, I must confess to an affection for the old rock and rollers. They sure could hold a stage, unlike some of today’s insipid personalities.