Leadership and Nokia

October 14, 2010

In the 9/20-9/26 edition of Bloomberg BusinessWeek, Matthew Lynn (and the photo that accompanied the article) implied that Stephen Elop, who became CEO of Nokia on 9/21, is not the best person to lead the turnaround because Elop is not a “phone expert.”

I do not know a great deal about Elop except that he was recently “the Canadian head of Microsoft’s business unit” and that he has software experience and a reputation for “shaking up” businesses, but I do know that Lynn’s apparent assumption—that “industry experience” is central to a turnaround—is just plain flawed.

One needs to look no further than Alex Mandel’s leadership of Teligent in the late ‘90’s to see that “industry experience” does not guarantee success. Mandel had been president and COO of AT&T, but Teligent failed spectacularly under his leadership. Although the failure was blamed on “the downturn and overcapacity,” the underlying issue was that on the ground and in the trenches, Teligent was simply unable to provide the reliable wireless services it promised. The lesson: The leadership skills required to launch a technology start-up with no existing infrastructure are very different from those required to lead a long-established company.

In a turnaround, where time truly is “of the essence,” the most valuable commodity is effective leadership, not industry expertise. I’ve had 34 clients. Of those, 3 were in one industry; 2 were in another; the rest were all “one-off.” Based on that experience, it is clear to me that industry experience is not, by any means, the determining factor.

The most important skills needed in leading a turnaround are

· The “power of the glance;” i.e., the ability to see quickly what needs to be done
· Common sense
· Ability to establish the right priorities
· Clarity of vision and the ability to convey that vision
· Decisiveness
· Ability to mobilize the troops to provide ideas and support the effort

Is having industry expertise a plus? Yes. But it is no substitute for having the right leadership skills. No matter what the industry, it is relatively easy to find someone with industry expertise. It is much more difficult to find someone who has the right leadership skills.

I’m rooting for Stephen Elop and hope he proves Mr. Lynn wrong!

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