Success in technology is not evenly distributed - there are tons of failures, a plethora of organizations that balance on the edge, relatively few who have made it, and a tiny group of hyper-successful ones that have made history. Obviously, it's the last bunch that attracts the most attention. Everyone wants to discover & understand their success formula - either to make it last virtually forever (if you're inside such an organization) or to replicate it in their own venture.
How much Elon in Tesla?
In many of these cases, success is strongly associated with the personalities & modus operandi of the founders (people like Jobs, Bezos, Gates, or Musk). And IMHO, this makes perfect sense - as crazy as it may sound, their companies (at least in their early days) reflected themselves and what they strongly believed in. In the end, these were literally crowds of people who built the successes, but they were all implementing "Stevism", "Jeffness", "Billdom", etc.
Such a model (success strongly dependant on the individual at the helm) wouldn't be possible if these top-level leaders:
- didn't have such powerful personalities (aka "reality distortion field")
- didn't dedicate nearly all their lives to work
- weren't able to seamlessly (& instantaneously) move between the overall strategic perspective & the micro-inspection/micro-management down to the core
I can't prove this with hard facts, but I dare to say that without them, there would be no Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Tesla, ... as we know them. So, the easiest way to replicate/prolong the success of these organizations seems to be ... to replicate their leaders.
To be fair - they were the first to realize this. Hence, they've tried to "inject" parts of their DNA into their organizations' cultures. Think of Amazon's LPs, Musk's algorithm, and various anecdotes involving CEOs at work, setting course & example for future generations of Xers (Googlers, Amazonians, Tweeple, etc.). These are all great examples of how founders have tried to extend their reach (in space & time) to reduce the direct dependence on their own personas.
Time to move on
But time flies. Many of these organizations are already 20 years old (or more). Many of these founders are no longer "in the saddle". Even if they still keep some, minor involvement in the companies they created (Gates, Bezos), the vast majority of today's employees have never worked with them (directly or close enough to see their direct impact). They have become legends, and the artifacts of their past (e.g., their personal oneliners, anecdotes with them) are now objects of organizational cult.
Is that wrong? To some extent, YES:
- These artifacts do not represent 100% of "Jeffness", "Stevism", "Billdom", but a limited perspective that can actually be quite harmful if applied out-of-context (without deeper understanding).
- Cult means that they are mindlessly taken for granted, like axioms. People do not ask what was behind them or what they were meant to change (when they were coined/phrased).
- A great idea from 20 years ago may not stand the test of time as well as you'd like. People change (new generations enter the job market), and business reality evolves (or even gets rapidly disrupted) - one has to consider these dynamics.
There's nothing wrong with looking for inspiration in the past. But being too much in tune with mindlessly copied historical models/patterns (which seem dangerously close to cargo cults), brings a risk of stagnation. It's a safe option for those who are either lazy or afraid to make their own impact ("What if I'm not ready to fill Steve/Bill/Larry's shoes?"). And one can truly understand their reluctance - we're talking about really huge shoes to be filled, after all - however, should that stop us from trying?
Personally, I'm really keen on the topic of various organizations' cultures, but I have to admit I failed to identify even a single case of a valuable culture enhancement in any BigTech company (after it has solidified for years). A good example: two new entries added to Amazon's LPs in 2021 - how do you feel about them?
Let's wrap up.
I find it yet another form of complacency - people mythologize the past & believe that mindlessly copying small, out-of-context, but highly visible behaviors (or referring verbosely to some catchy phrases attributed to a successful founder) is the way to maintain/achieve greatness. Or at least - a credible alibi (or rather: excuse).
In reality, they should focus on the here & now by applying uncompromising critical thinking and start building their own legends. Respecting the legacy of the titans is a good & honorable thing, but not an excuse to be passive & unimaginative. This applies not only to the new CEOs in charge of the whole company but also (maybe even more) to the mid-/low-level leaders who should also strive to make their mark. No greatness is given forever, and frogs tend to boil down into mediocrity.