Renee James: When You Should Turn Down the Money
The former Intel president talks dollars, risk, and the rewards of bidirectional mentorship.
Renee James explained to Stanford GSB students that mentorship must go both ways to be successful. | Stacy Geiken Photography
When Renee James joined Intel in 1987, the giant semiconductor maker was as male dominated as the rest of the tech industry. Fast forward to July 2015, and James, Intel’s first female president, has just exited, leaving a company that has embraced inclusion and diversity. Moving Intel in that direction was always high on her agenda, James said, along with becoming CEO. But the latter was a battle she didn’t win.
In a discussion with Stanford Graduate School of Business students, James talked about the lessons she learned as a senior manager, including the perils of launching an internal initiative with too much funding. “When someone gives you way more money than you need — say no,” she said. Here are suggestions on getting the most out of a relationship with a mentor and how to manage conflict within a large enterprise that James shared during a View From The Top talk on Feb. 8.
Mentorship: A Two-Way Street
Being a mentor shouldn’t be a burden. Relationships in which the mentee doesn’t give something back to their mentor don’t work. They need to be “bidirectional,” said James. “So you have to find someone that not only can advise you, but that you can actually help, either by bringing them forward in technology or your interests or whatever. When they’re not bidirectional, they’re a bummer, and it’s really hard. The person never wants to give time with you, and you’ll find they’re always busy,” she said.
Say No to Too Much Money
James saw the potential in cloud computing well before Amazon built the highly successful cloud venture called Amazon Web Services and tried to convince a skeptical Intel to move in that direction. Her initial arguments were successful and she was given $350 million to make it happen, although she had only asked for $100 million. Accepting that much money was a mistake, she said. “If you take it, they want a return. So you don’t want to take more money than your business plan until you actually know or hit the milestone at which you need it.” Ultimately, the initiative was canceled.
The CEO Gets the Last Word
Intel dominated the market for chips to power desktop and laptop computers. But it came late to the growing market for smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices. James wanted Intel to become more competitive, but the CEO at the time worried that the lower price point of mobile chips would damage Intel’s margins, she said. “But it also was consistent with the philosophy of the company, which was to always be a first mover in embracing that which is going to disrupt you,” James said.
She didn’t win the fight to make Intel a stronger player in the mobile market, and the loss taught her “people do what they think the CEO wants, even if they know it’s wrong. And that’s a very dangerous phenomenon,” she said. Internal power struggles often amount to struggles over resources, and when that happens, the boss always wins, James said.
Know the Downside
Large companies have a low tolerance for risk, James said. A manager advocating a risky move needs to understand the extent of the potential downside. “I tend to understand how much are we willing to really lose, how long could we really sustain this,” she said.
The Five-Slide Test
James said that Intel’s famously impatient former CEO Andy Grove taught her a number of important lessons about management, including “the clarity imperative. You need to know what matters and be able to write it down in five slides,” she said. Intel employees who couldn’t demonstrate that level of clarity didn’t succeed.
No Bad Boards
A CEO’s relationship with the board of directors is critical: “When you’re CEO, it’s all about the board. If you have a dysfunctional board and a board that isn’t supportive or that has [its] own internal dynamic and politics, life’s too short for that,” James said.
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