Managing Leaders, Or Why Pat Gelsinger Is Awesome

In case you missed it, Intel CEO Bob Swan is stepping down from his role effective February 15 and will be replaced by current VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger. Gelsinger was the former CTO at Intel for a number of years before leaving to run EMC and VMware. His return is a bright spot in an otherwise dismal past few months for the chip giant.

Why is Gelsinger’s return such a cause for celebration? The analysts that have been interviewed say that Intel has been in need of a technical leader for a while now. Swan came from the office of the CFO to run Intel on an interim basis after the resignation of Brian Krzanich. The past year has been a rough one for Intel, with delays in their new smaller chip manufacturing process and competition heating up from long-time rival AMD but also from new threats like ARM being potentially sold to NVIDIA. It’s a challenging course for any company captain to sail. However, I think one key thing makes is nigh impossible for Swan.

Management Mentality

Swan is a manager. That’s not meant as a slight inasmuch as an accurate label. Managers are people that have things and look after them. Swan came from the financial side of the house where you have piles of resources and you do your best to account for them and justify their use. It’s Management 101. Managers make good CEOs for a variety of companies. They make sure that the moves are small and logical and will pay off in the future for the investors and eventually the workers as well. They are stewards first and foremost. When their background comes from something with inherent risk they are especially stewardly.

You know who else was a manager? John Sculley, the man who replaced Steve Jobs at Apple back in 1983. Sculley was seen as a moderating force to Jobs’ driving vision and sometimes reckless decision making skills. Sculley piloted the ship into calm waters at first but was ultimately sent packing because his decisions were starting to make less and less sense, such as exploring options to split Apple into separate companies and taking on IBM head-to-head on their turf.

Sculley was ousted and Jobs returned to Apple in 1993. It wasn’t easy at first but eventually the style of Jobs started producing results. Things like the iPod, iMac, and eventually the iPhone came from his vision. He’s a leader in that regard. Leaders are the ones that jump out and take risks to make big results. Leaders are people like John Kennedy that give a vision of going to the moon in a decade without the faintest idea how that might happen. Leadership is what drives companies.

Leaders, however, are a liability without managers. Leaders say “let’s go to the moon!” Managers sit down and figure out how to make that happen without breaking the budgets or losing too many people along the way. Managers are the grounded voices that guide leaders. Without someone telling a leader of the challenges to overcome they won’t see the roadblocks until the drive right into them.

Leaders without brakes on their vision have no reality to shape it. Every iMac has an Apple Lisa. Every iPod has the iPod Hi-Fi. Even the iPhone wasn’t the iPhone until the App Store came around against the original vision of Apple’s driving force. To put it another way, George Lucas is a visionary leader in filmmaking. However, when he was turned loose without management of his process we ended up with the messy prequel trilogy. Why was Empire Strikes Back such a good film? Because it had people like Lawrence Kasdan involved managing the process of Lucas creating art. They helped focus the drive of a leader and make the result something great.

Tech Leadership

Let’s bring this discussion back to Intel and Pat Gelsinger. I know he is the best person to lead Intel right now. I know that because Gelsinger is very much a tech leader. He has visions for how things need to be and he can see how to get there. He knows that reducing costs and reaving product lines at Intel isn’t going to make them a better company down the road no matter what the activist investors have to say on the matter. They may have wanted regime change when they petitioned the board back in December, but they may find the new king a bit harder to deal with.

Gelsinger is also a manager. Going from CTO to being COO at EMC and eventually CEO at VMware has tempered his technical chops. You can’t hope to run a company on crazy ideas and risky bets. Steve Jobs had people like Tim Cook in the background keeping him as grounded in reality as possible. Gelsinger picked up these skills in helming VMware and I think that’s going to pay off for him at Intel. Rather than running out to buy another company to augment capabilities that will never see the light of day, someone like him can see the direction that Intel needs to go and make it happen in a collected manner. No more FPGA acquisitions that never bear fruit. No more embarrassing sales of the mobile chip division because no one could capitalize on it.

Pat Gelsinger is the best kind of technical manager. I saw it in the one conversation I was involved in with him during an event. He stepped in to a talk between myself and a couple of analysts. He listened to them and to me and when he was asked for his opinion, he stopped for a moment to think. He asked a question to clarify and then gave his answer. That’s a tempered leader approach to things. He listened. He thought. He clarified. And then he made a decision. That means there is steel behind the fire. That means the driving factors of the decision-making process aren’t just “cool stuff” or “save as much money as we can”. What will happen is the fusion of the two that the company needs to stay relevant in a world that seems bent on passing it by.

Tom’s Take

I’ve worked for managers and I’ve worked for leaders. I don’t have a preference for one or the other. I’ve seen leaders sell half their assets to save their company. I’ve also seen them buy ridiculous stuff in an effort to build something that no one would buy. I’ve seen managers keep things calm in the middle of a chaotic mess. I’ve also seen them so wracked with indecision that the opportunities they needed to capitalize on sailed off into the sunset. If you want to be the best person to run a company as the CEO, whether it’s a hundred people or a hundred thousand, you should look to someone like Pat Gelsinger. He’s the best combination of a manager and leader that I’ve seen in a long time. In five years we will be talking about how he was the one to bring Intel back to the top of the mountain, both through his leadership and his management skills.

Keep It In The Family


I have a brother.  We act like brothers.  We argue and fight with each other fairly often.  We get along in our own way.  One thing we do *not* tolerate is anyone else picking on us. We’ve been known to have a disagreement, but when someone comes up and starts something, we will put aside our disagreement and band together to fight against whoever thought it was a good idea to mess with either one of us.  That’s what brothers do.  Right or wrong, you back your brother.

The Work Family

Managers aren’t all that different from family.  We spend a lot of our lives working in proximity with managers.  The middle of the road types are like family members we tolerate.  Those that aren’t so good tend to be like family members we don’t really get along with at all.  There are some that end up being just like a close family member, like a brother or sister.  It doesn’t mean that the relationship isn’t still managerial.  What makes it key is what happens when someone comes down on you.

My last manager was a great person.  He was calm and thoughtful.  He saw every side of a problem and did what was right.  Those qualities make him great to work for.  But to transcend above that, you have to do something to set yourself apart.  For me, it was the way he corrected behavior.

He tended to give what I like to call “Do Better” talks.  He never yelled.  He never got upset.  In fact, all he usually said was, “I’m disappointed.”  For guys like me, disappointment is ten times worse than getting yelled at.  After chats like that, we agreed to not do whatever it was again and move on.  That’s the essence of a Do Better talk.  No blame, just do better next time.

Backing Your Family

Where he shined was what happened when the other managers came hunting for heads.  You’ve seen this all the time.  Someone screws up and the issue is dealt with.  However, some higher manager feels the need to exert control do they find the person responsible for the issue and give them a dressing down for it.  That doesn’t really serve to correct the behavior.  It’s more about dominance.

Weak willed middle managers will sit back and let the higher manager have their way with employees.  That doesn’t foster a supportive atmosphere.  If you’re never sure who is going to come head hunting, it doesn’t make you want to admit failure.  Which means the issues never get corrected, just covered up.

My old manager was different.  Whenever I screwed up and someone at the top of the food chain came looking for me I never had to worry.  The same man that would call me on the carpet for making mistakes would turn right around and defend me to those that came looking to chew me out again.  In his eyes, he’d dealt with the problem.  Picking on me served no purpose.  Just like my brother, he’d take up arms with me to defend our “family” against others.  It didn’t take long for everyone to learn that my manager dealt with things his way.  And there was no point to trying to deal with his employees against him.

Managers that are willing to defend you right after chewing you out are a special breed.  Those are the kind of folks that employees will walk across broken glass to work for.  It’s not for everyone, though.  Standing up to the heat to defend someone that did something wrong is never easy.  Especially if the higher manager is upset and emotional.  The key is to trust in your instincts as a manager and believe that dealing with the situation your way is the right way.  Having someone come in and undermine you management skills makes you look ineffective.  It’s better to weather the storm of yelling from one person than to lose the respect of everyone in your department.

Treating your employees like family doesn’t mean you can’t be their manager.  You can still  be in charge and have a good relationship with them.  You can win their respect time and time again by backing them even after you’d had to correct them.  When they see you standing up for them against all comers, they’ll have someone they can believe in.  And they’ll be as close to you as any family member.

If you’d like to see more thoughts about management and some great career advice, be sure to check out The Tech Interview.  It’s a great site with great articles and run by awesome people.  Take it to heart and you’ll go far in this world.