Only the Paranoid Survive

A few days ago, there was a news item which read “Former Intel CEO Andy Grove dies at 79”. Although Mr. Grove had a full life, and was battling with cancer, I must admit that I felt sad reading the news.

I have been fortunate to work with Intel during the early 2000s. I was based in India and never had the opportunity to meet Mr. Grove. Yet, he was a familiar figure. He was the chairman at that time and Craig Barrett was CEO. Paul Otellini was the COO. Thanks to the town hall meetings and the corporate videos constantly updating us here in Bangalore, Craig, Andy and Paul became familiar faces through those videos where they would be addressing the global community – talking about wins, challenges and road ahead. It created a certain level of connection with the executive team.

In his 37-year career at Intel, Andy Grove helped the company into one of the few consumer brands to emerge from the semiconductor industry. With the enormously successful “Intel Inside” campaign, Andy ensured that the firm’s products became branded goods, not commodities. Under his watch, annual revenues jumped from less than 2 billion to more than 26 billion and turned hundreds of its employees into millionaires. He personified the great American dream – rising from the humblest of backgrounds to one of the world’s most respected leaders.

He was born in Hungary into a Jewish family. He survived the Holocaust and an illness of Scarlet fever as a child left him almost deaf. He graduated at the top of his class in chemical engineering, in spite of his poor English and impaired hearing, and went on to do a PhD in the same subject at the University of California, Berkeley. The founders of Intel, Robert Noyce and Gordon Moore brought Andy in as the third employee after spotting his talent. He came in as a technologist but over time, Andy turned himself into a management genius.

He is now being compared with the likes of Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller, legends who transformed steel and oil. However, while Carnegie and Rockefeller flaunted their wealth and power, Mr. Grove worked in a cubicle no different from those of his employees. Also, they were from a different era whereas Intel was founded in the late sixties which makes Intel around the same age as mine! So how did Mr. Grove manage to turn a start-up into one of the world’s most respected companies in a relatively short time-frame? I believe that the answer lies in his amazing ability to combine raw IQ with Emotional Intelligence to help create the right culture within Intel.

Let me share some of my own experiences – many of those at that time seemed simple and ordinary but today when I reflect back on them, I have a better appreciation of how those leadership practices played a key role in culture building. 

Storytelling

Intel took pride in an egalitarian culture starting with the executive leadership itself working out of cubicles. There were no reserved car parks for anyone. Conference rooms could be booked by anyone from anywhere on a first-come-first-served basis and not linked to seniority. One of the stories I heard went like this – “Craig Barrett walked into a conference room and was promptly told by a relatively junior guy who was sitting inside that he had the room (meaning he had booked it). Craig apologized and left. Later, on being told that he had just turned away the CEO, the junior guy panicked and sent an apology note to Craig. Craig replied that there was no need as he was only following Intel values.

Another story went like this – “A Boss called a meeting at 9 am. The attendees, many of them new to the organization, got late and came in around 9.15 am and found the room empty. Later they got an email from the bosses’ secretary with the minutes of the meeting (each was given an action item) – the meeting was adjourned at 9.10 am due to non-attendance”. Respect for time was a fundamental value for Intel. There were several such stories floating around which reinforced the values of Intel. Today, companies are waking up to the power of storytelling specially to reinforce shared values.

Policy vs. Culture

Given the time differences between US and India, daily back-to-back meetings at odd times were taking a toll on Indian folks. While I was working, Intel came out with a policy of ‘quiet time’ of 12 am to 6 am. The concept was simple yet powerful. Suddenly, we had the ‘power to decline’ meetings – no longer had to come up with an excuse as to why I could not join a meeting. The policy meant I could decline without giving any reason if the meeting time fell within the quiet zone. It was empowering and liberating.

Certain things in an organization are stated and visible for all to see – things such as strategy, goals, structures, policies and procedures. Organizational culture on the other hand, typically comprise of unstated things such as unwritten rules, consequences of failure, networks, tone of communication etc. It is important for companies to strike a right balance between the stated and the unstated and if required come up with clear policies and continually fine-tune them to empower employees.

Strategic vs. Tactical

Andy realized the need to balance high-level strategy with ground level tactics for enhanced performance. Meeting management, for example, was a topic close to him. As part of getting ‘Intellized’, all employees had to undergo training on meeting management and ensure that it was followed. During my initial days (before being fully indoctrinated in the values), I was once presenting to a group of managers – I had blocked attendees’ calendar from 10 to 11 am. It was a good meeting with lot of discussions but around 10.50 am, one of the attendees just got up and left. Soon, some others also left without saying a word! I was shocked to say the least. Later, I learnt that as per norms of meeting management – the onus is on the meeting owner to close the meeting 10 minutes before the closing time to allow people time to move to their next meeting (which could be in another building and take 5-10 minutes to walk). The reason why this was religiously followed within Intel is because it had become part of the culture! To reinforce such behaviours, it is important that seemingly tactical things are given strategic importance. 

Internal Grooming

Intel promoted very heavily from within, most notably in its executive suite. The company resisted the trend toward outsider CEOs. Paul Otellini was a 30-year veteran of the company when he assumed the role of CEO. All of its top leaders rose through the ranks after many years with the firm. In many cases, Intel's top executives have spent their entire working careers with Intel such as Andy himself. While some may argue that this may not be the best strategy in today’s fast changing world and hiring from outside brings in ‘new perspective’, often the reality is that companies fail to invest in grooming their next generation leaders to take on the mantle. So even in companies which undertake succession planning as an exercise, when the need arises, the leaders look outside since they do not trust their own people to step up to challenging leadership roles. And in industries which are complex such as semiconductors which have steep learning curves, the insider knowledge can often outweigh the fresh perspectives of an outsider.

While many of these management principles I have talked about so far may seem more common today at a global level, they were totally new when Andy brought them into practice at Intel. He had the courage and conviction and perseverance to drive and ingrain those values within Intel and in turn build a high performance culture. And to me, that is what real leadership is all about.

May his soul rest in peace. 


I would love to hear your views. Kindly post your comments and feel free to write to me at suman@inroads.co.in.

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