CXO

Twitter's new board member highlights critical mistake in leadership strategy

Companies need executives who have passion for a product and its users. Twitter's newest board member, who has tweeted twice, seems to lack such enthusiasm.

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Image: iStockphoto/HAKINMHAN

Patrick Pichette, Twitter's newest board member, is super smart with considerable industry experience, including seven years as CFO at Alphabet/Google. What he isn't, however, is a Twitter user. Not in any meaningful sense, anyway.

As of this writing, 941 people have breathlessly lined up to follow Pichette's every tweet, but are getting meager mush in return: Pichette didn't join Twitter until February 2017, churning out a whopping two tweets in that time: One that celebrated his joining the Twitter board and another that used the term "YOLO." Enough said.

Perhaps Twitter doesn't need another fanboy on its board in order to effectively figure out its future: Maybe Twitter agnostics like Pichette are exactly the right executives to help Twitter plot a new course. Maybe. In my experience, however, it's hard for an executive to truly invest himself or herself into a company whose products or DNA they don't share.

Wandering in the wilderness

I should know. I spent a year at Canonical. Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, the popular desktop and cloudy Linux operating system (back when "desktop Linux" perennially promised to become a thing), was in some ways a perfect fit for me. I had spent years in open source, working for a range of open source startups (as well as helping to start Novell's Linux Business Office pre-SUSE acquisition). Joining Canonical as COO, it should have been perfect.

It wasn't. Looking back, some of that stemmed from Canonical, but much of it was simply my fault. I was (and am) a devoted Mac user. I tried to convince myself (and the world) that I didn't miss my Mac when I immersed myself in Ubuntu, but I did. Terribly. Ubuntu was foreign to me, and every minute that I could avoid it, I did. Meanwhile, an army of Linux desktop users happily used Ubuntu and celebrated its successes, but I couldn't join them.

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I certainly couldn't lead them. Just under a year into my time at Canonical, I pulled the ripcord and escaped to another open source startup, an HTML5 startup built on the SproutCore open source framework. It was technology I believed in, and this made me a more effective advocate for it. I decided I'd never work for a company again if I didn't believe in its products.

A DNA match

Yes, I know plenty of business execs can "focus on the fundamentals" and don't need to be core customers of their products. The best ones, however, absolutely must match the DNA of their customers.

When there's a mismatch, it gets ugly.

Take, for example, Ron Johnson, the former Apple retail stores chief who went on to run JC Penney and, ultimately, to run it into the ground. Johnson came from the rarefied air of Apple's premium product experience, and tried to make JC Penney (sorry: JCP) hip and cool. It didn't work. He also tried things (like removing discounting) that appealed to the core JC Penney customer base. It failed. Completely. Johnson is a great executive, but the absolute wrong one for JC Penney.

A much closer fit is Angela Ahrendts, who gave up her job as CEO of fashion retailer Burberry to run Apple's retail operations. A technology expert? No. But Ahrendts matches the Apple profile of caring deeply about a premium experience.

SEE: Tips for building and advancing your leadership career (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

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Do you need to have remodeled your home to run Home Depot? No, but arguably you need to understand DIY folks and contractors who do, or how can you have the proper level of empathy for their needs? In tech, one of the reasons that Satya Nadella has been such a standout CEO for Microsoft in this "developers are the new kingmakers" era is that he's a developer. He didn't foist a Windows-only mindset on the industry because he has empathy with polyglot programmers.

So, will Pichette be a good addition to the Twitter board? He's a numbers guy, so maybe he doesn't need to be an active tweeter to help the company improve its top-line revenue growth and bottom-line profitability. Yet, it's hard to see him adding much to the boardroom discussion about Twitter's unsolved problems of user growth, given that he has hardly used the service.

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About Matt Asay

Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

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