AMD and What a Difference the Right CEO Makes

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There is a lesson that seems to be hard learned in the technology market and that is that a technology company needs to be led by an experienced executive who also is a subject matter expert. Nowhere is this more evident than in AMD, which has been led by Lisa Su since 2014.

Particularly when you have a company in trouble, having someone that not only can lead but knows where to go is important because running ever faster in the wrong direction has never worked. Given AMD’s recent financials I figured it was time to remind folks that often the problem with a company isn’t the people or the market but the qualifications, focus, and vision of the person at the helm. Let’s revisit Lisa Su, AMD’s storied CEO this week.

The Advantage of Advancing from Inside

Coming from the outside to turn around a company is never easy and one of Lisa’s advantages is that she had been in AMD in a leadership position for several years before stepping in as CEO. Often a new CEO hits the ground uncertain of who to trust and with massive pressure to perform financially, and fortunately that wasn’t the case here. Those years in an operational role allowed her to understand what needed to be done, who she could trust, and at least have the framework of a plan on how to execute. In effect she was then able to hit the ground running when she started and thus was able to showcase significant progress in what has been a very short period of time.

Why’d She Take the Job?

I have to admit a lot of folks would have looked at the mess AMD was in and chosen to walk away, but she saw in the company something worth saving and she was quoted as saying, “To me, there was never a question that this is the fight I want to fight.” She realized, I think, that this posting could define her career and sometimes it is worth it to stand up and be counted. She viewed the firm as on the cusp of a change that only comes once every 10 to 20 years and this vision drove her into the job and also drove her to execute I think. She is one of the most driven people I have ever met.

Results

You can look at the financials and the overall results. This year finds them number one in graphics technology for game consoles and number one in thin clients. AMD has showcased its next-generation Zen architecture working and this flexible design is unique in the market. I’ve spoken to a number of OEMs that are surprisingly excited about Zen and have been frustrated with the lack of progress for industry standard x86 architectures of late—even forming a consortium to replace PCIe. While sales results for this effort won’t be until next year, reentering a market you have exited is no simple task. But after massive changes to both AMD and its roadmap the firm is signaling it is ready.

In talking to the folks inside AMD they have gone from a bunch of folks who were questioning survival to those now wondering just how high the ceiling will be. Granted until Zen actually ships and market acceptance is confirmed there remains risk but, particularly inside the company, the excitement and confidence is a noticeable improvement from where AMD was a few years ago.

Governance

One of the things I look at closely with any executive team is “governance” whether the top executives and firm are focused on what actually makes the company great and not being distracted by every sparkly new technology, media opportunity, or fad that hits the market. Under Lisa Su the firm has been increasingly transparent both inside and out and reengaged customers and key stakeholders in a “report out” model which keeps them far more up to date on plans and progress. They even encouraged employees to say “no” to low priority items so they could make their commitments on strategic graphics and processor efforts like Zen.

Wrapping Up

It amazes me how many boards select CEOs that lack the critical experience and then seem to struggle with why their company continues to spiral downward. AMD is a showcase, granted an early one, of why it is critical to select someone with the right pedigree, skills, focus, and critical ability to lead. I’m sure both AMD’s board and its employees are proud of their choice. I just wish I could point to more companies that have made similar moves as there appear to be far more examples of where this was done wrong of late.

Happy second year anniversary Lisa, you’ve earned a hardy congratulation for some amazing progress. Just don’t stop.

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About Author

As President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, Rob provides regional and global companies with guidance in how to create credible dialogue with the market, target customer needs, create new business opportunities, anticipate technology changes, select vendors and products, and practice zero dollar marketing. For over 20 years Rob has worked for and with companies like Microsoft, HP, IBM, Dell, Toshiba, Gateway, Sony, USAA, Texas Instruments, AMD, Intel, Credit Suisse First Boston, ROLM, and Siemens.

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