Monday, December 28, 2009

Len, we hardly knew ye

On the day before Christmas, Qualcomm announced that its COO Len Lauer is leaving to become CEO “at another company.” Although his hiring was a big deal three years ago, I didn’t see him quoted a lot during his time as group president and later COO.

I kept waiting for someone to leak what that company is, but no one has said — and he refused to say when the UT asked him Thursday. (My hunch is that the former CEO of Sprint Nextel is not leaving to head a small startup.)

A few things bother me about this announcement. I agree with Sebastian Rupley of GigaOM:
I know companies don’t typically release news a day before Santa’s visit, unless they want to push things under the carpet.
He’s right, but no one is going to brag about losing a top exec and so that part’s understandable.

I’m only slightly bothered that Lauer was one of the troika of leading execs at the Dec. 16 annual Qualcomm “town hall” for the local telecom community — and then 8 days later he’s gone. It’s also curious that the December 2006 press release announcing his appointment has been deleted from the US website (but not the Russian site or the Google cache).

More seriously, one of the things is that we’re seeing the replay of what happens at any big company where there’s no chance of becoming CEO — the most experienced execs are leaving. Then-COO Sanjay Jha in August 2007 left to become Motorola’s handset CEO (when/if it’s spun off).

Yes, it’s a testament to the quality of the people at Qualcomm, the experience they gain and the value that other firms place on that. (Of course Lauer had excellent operating credentials before joining Qualcomm.)

However, when your CEO is 47 and the scion of one of the founding families, it’s obvious that it’s going to be a long, long time before anyone else gets to control the reins. I haven’t seen any evidence that Qualcomm is prepared for its new role of providing executive talent to the rest of the industry.

It would be good if the board were populated with someone who lived through the two decade Jack Welch era at GE, where the company groomed talent and saw them bail out in despair of ever taking the gold ring.

Perhaps some of the GE experience can be used to keep good talent longer. In retrospect, some of the GE CEO wannabes — think Nardelli — turned out to be spectacularly bad CEOs without the GE infrastructure behind them. Qualcomm has a unique position of strength in an industry that still is growing (at least a little), and it may hard to be a huge success in a company or industry that poses more serious challenges. (Exhibit A: Ed Zander.)

There was one other troubling thing about the announcement. With Lauer’s departure, Qualcomm is juggling responsibilities between people to fit the men (they’re all men), just as they did when Lauer was appointed 33 months ago.

I’ve never been an executive in a Fortune 500 company, but it seems to me that the lines of the various divisions should be consistent and not re-juggled based on who’s available this week to run them. On the one hand, QCT head Steve Mollenkopf has the operating experience most relevant to running (as he now will) Qualcomm MEMS Technologies, makers of Mirasol.

On the other hand, will running QCOM’s biggest division cause the QMT growth possibilities to be neglected? And if this was such a good idea, why wasn’t it done earlier? Lauer’s service business were assigned to president Steve Altman, and it appears the top rungs of the executive team also includes Andrew Gilbert Derek Aberle (head of QTL, historically Qualcomm’s most profitable division.)

I’m guessing that another re-assignment of responsibilities will come in the next 12-15 months. Hopefully, that will be as the result of substantial growth from one of Qualcomm’s newer divisions (like QMT or MediaFlo) rather than more juggling to fit the changing personalities in the executive suite.

Updated Dec. 30: As a Qualcomm reader points out, Derek Aberle is head of QTL while Andrew Gilbert is head of Qualcomm Internet Services.

Update: see this report of Len’s new job.

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