But before talking about the fiery Elon Musk or his cold-blooded counterpart Mark Zuckerberg, why not review some of the leaders of the previous generation, who embody or have embodied their company. I’m talking about managers and not women managers because there is no business leader in the lines that follow. I start with France with Vincent Bolloré. Whether we like it or not, the Breton businessman is part of this race of leaders who do not hide behind the companies he leads. He’s probably not the most talkative of the bosses of listed companies, but the harshness of his methods, sometimes proven, sometimes fantasized, is enough to maintain his character and to make it clear that he is the master of decisions. Elsewhere and in completely different styles, I could cite the late Steve Jobs with Apple, or Warren Buffett with Berkshire Hathaway. In each of these examples, the founder’s vista is so intertwined with the company’s success that he has come to personify it completely.
The other side of the coin is what I will call inheritance risk. In the case of Apple, it should be noted that this delicate sequence was remarkably well managed thanks to Tim Cook, more operational and less creative than Jobs, but who was undoubtedly the right manager at the right time. Moreover, in the case of groups like Bolloré or Berkshire, the standard-bearers deploy considerable efforts to ensure that their posterity is guaranteed. Conversely, some copies are not up to the original. We could cite Arnaud Lagardère, who, to put it thoughtfully, had some difficulty assuming the legacy of his parent, Jean-Luc. His group has just been sketched by Vivendi, owned by a certain Vincent Bolloré.
Visionaries, not managers
But to come back to the bosses who embody their companies, negative examples are also legion. To dig into the news, two obvious examples are Peloton and GoPro. Let’s skip the fact that these are two single-product companies that have had tremendous success to focus on the subject that interests us today. Both Peloton and GoPro were founded by visionary and charismatic entrepreneurs who turned out to be poor managers. They had to call on “adult supervision” to hold the reins. But in both cases, this decision came late after an economic disaster. Peloton has successfully lured former Netflix and Spotify CFO Barry McCarty. GoPro was taken over by Brian McGee, ex-Qualcomm, who carried out a clever restructuring. However, neither of these two companies is really out of the woods yet.
And then there is the in-between, with very current examples. Starting with Elon Musk. No one disputes Musk’s extraordinary entrepreneurial success with PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX. But the escapades of the South African billionaire and his repeated liberties with the law and regulations could end up costing Tesla and its shareholders very dearly. But for now, the bounty on impertinence, irreverence and a form of genius masks the problems that might arise down the road.
The case of Mark Zuckerberg with Meta Platforms is undoubtedly more interesting, because of a different nature. On the moral side of course, there would be sandwiches to write. But it is less obvious to criticize “Zuck” for his management. Of course, there is this reputation of unsympathetic nerd which sticks to him with the skin, a stereotype besides reinforced by David Fincher’s film. But that doesn’t prevent Meta from being one of the most spectacular entrepreneurial successes of the 21st century. In addition, Zuck was indeed a visionary and an outstanding strategist when he understood ten years ago, then aware of the glory of Facebook, that his days were numbered and that he had to accept to “cannibalize” oneself. even to reinvent themselves. What he did with Instagram, which became the most important social network in the world (at least before the advent of TikTok) even though when he bought it it was only an App to put filters on pictures. It is by far the most successful acquisition in the world of tech, with of course that of YouTube by Google… Nice acquisition also with WhatsApp, an application used by half of humanity. Either way, everyone said Zuckerberg was crazy and overpaid. But in reality he was one step ahead and he was preparing for the future when the rest of the observers continued to live in the past. One can easily create a parallel with the metaverse, since his project has aroused the same criticisms as those which have paved the way for the group in recent years. We are still on a completely different scale since Méta now generates $120 billion in annual revenue, or 24 times more than ten years ago. Does history repeat itself? Hard to say but Zuck, who has always been unpopular with the public, has proven so far that betting against him was a major mistake.
So we have all kinds of examples there. There is however a common point: when the leaders embody their companies too much, the dynamics are always very passionate. They can cause an attraction, almost a hypnosis in the case of Elon Musk, or a deep repulsion. Tesla shareholders learned to live with it, but the slingshots only died down because the stock was on an upswing. Watch out for the reversal of fortune.
Bow out at the right time
Often, the genius is also knowing how to give up your place in the spotlight when the time is right. This does not mean that the leader does not continue to pull the strings behind the scenes on the major strategic turning points. This is also the situation that prevails at Google with co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, or at Microsoft with Bill Gates. Often, the succession is prepared well in advance with a leader from the seraglio. This is what happens regularly with American tech stars: the founders have been replaced by people who have worked with them and who are fully aware of the culture and the inner workings of the company.
The question is often more complex in family businesses, where the previous generation trains the next generation. This dynastic culture has its limits since for lack of thrushes… we eat blackbirds! But there are also successful examples, like the succession of François Pinault around PPR. After initiating the transformation, he left it to his patiently trained son François-Henri Pinault to take the helm to make Kering a luxury heavyweight. To stay in the sector, Bernard Arnault, 73, at the head of the most powerful current French company, LVMH, is preparing the five children from his two marriages to manage the empire. History not to let it disintegrate like that of his best friend Jean-Luc Lagardère, who disappeared suddenly in 2003 without having sufficiently prepared the sequel, with the consequences that we know.
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These invasive bosses
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