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New Captains Sail into Tech Town

Even as Silicon Valley’s first-generation CEOs steer their Lexus convertibles into the hills, impatient investors and young founders are hailing …

Even as Silicon Valley’s first-generation CEOs steer their Lexus convertibles into the hills, impatient investors and young founders are hailing a second wave of corporate captain-a saltier breed skilled in scaling up businesses and building profitability. As one recently resigned CEO put it, “You need different coaches for different teams.”

Mark Wright, recently named CEO of EXP Systems in Menlo Park, CA, has what Silicon Valley wants. The 20-year veteran of IBM excelled at making money for the company’s software sales and marketing division, growing strategic workstation software sales by 100 percent each year during his tenure as vice president from 1996 to 1998. This skill has taken on new urgency as beleaguered boards push to replace their “start-up” talent with “scale-up” talent.

“I went through the same job search 18 months ago,” says Wright, “but my skills weren’t as highly valued then as they are now. At that point the Valley was looking for rock star IPO value. Obviously, if you’ve worked in a company like IBM for 20 years, what you bring instead is a very disciplined methodology.”

Ditto for David Murphy who was recruited to the top spot at Asera in Belmont, CA, in May from Tivoli, where he helped triple revenue as president. “In any business environment, a maturation takes place where the kind of executive who can take things forward changes,” says Murphy. “People may say I’m cutting against the [recruitment trend] grain, but I feel the best opportunities are found in being a bit counter-cyclical.”

John Thompson, vice chairman of the search firm Heidrick & Struggles, has observed nearly 100 CEO searches in the Valley in the past 15 months. He’s seen a new demand for bosses who’ve been through mistakes and created better companies because of them.

“It’s been said that in boom times, a German shepherd with a note in its mouth could pick up revenue,” Thompson quips. “Today, failure is highly valued. One investor told me, €˜We don’t know how good these people are because they’ve never been tested. They’re upside managers.’ Boards want people who’ve been through tough times, who’ve made mistakes and learned from them. About 60 to 75 percent of our company clients are specifically requesting turnaround CEOs.”

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