Either they are met with admiration – or contempt. Silicon Valley’s billionaire founders and bosses are pretty much the opposite of what bosses are supposed to be. Are you so successful despite this, or is that why you are so successful? And does the principle also work in times of crisis?
Anyone who reads job advertisements for executives these days will find terms such as “empathy”, “team spirit” or “must be able to communicate digitally” right at the top of the required list.
Reinhard Schlieker is editor-in-chief of “Börse am Sonntag”.
The bosses of the future are full of soft skills, now also called power skills, which are reminiscent of the interviews after a football game: “How do you feel?” is a common first question there. If you had once asked Uwe Seeler or Katsche Schwarzenbeck, they would probably have answered whether the questioner had all the cups in the closet. The trend towards empathetic, friendly managers is certainly not a flash in the pan. But how do the CEOs of the most profitable companies actually tick? What distinguishes them? Anyone who looks at Silicon Valley gets the impression that it takes a mixture of toughness, paranoia and intransigence to run a billion-dollar company. Is the talk of soft skills perhaps just a fairy tale?
Jeff Bezos exemplifies the cold-hearted prototype of the ruthless entrepreneur. The Amazon founder earns around 150,000 dollars for this – per minute! With his $200 billion fortune, he’s roughly in a league with Elon Musk. Bezos initially found his online sales idea best suited to books, so he started selling books online. It was all uphill from there – the ambitious Bezos delivering almost everything, and faster and faster. His ventures expanded into almost every conceivable business area, which he first tested in the USA and then integrated into his global corporate network. Music, films, smart home (“Alexa”, soon to be history) and e-books (“Kindle”) as well as the hardware. Amazon is clearly seen as the main enemy of stationary retail.
Bezos does not see himself as an industrial killer, but rather as a benefactor who channels millions into charitable causes. However, his person remains controversial – the international trade union federation has already voted him the “worst boss in the world”. In fact, Amazon sees itself as 100% customer-centric. In everyday life, this means: The treatment of employees and contractors is rather rough, and private third-party providers in particular on the platform are faced with harsh rules, for the benefit of the customers, as they say. Amazon is currently getting into rough seas: The company announced a hiring freeze at the beginning of November and most recently layoffs – 10,000 people have to go. The background to this is the declining propensity to buy on the part of customers and high inflation.
The boom of the corona pandemic is giving way to sober reality. Amazon stock is down nearly half this year, but the company is still worth a trillion dollars. The technology investor Gene Munster, on the other hand, sees the giant on the growth path: “Amazon is unmatched in terms of logistics and online trading…. a real growth story”. Much like Google, Bezos has penetrated pretty much every corner of the internet in one form or another. Most likely where you can’t see it: in server and storage solutions for corporate customers. Money is also made there, lots of money.
Similarly manic, at the same time obsessed with paranoia: This is how ex-employee Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder and on the way to the metaverse, describes the universe – Elon Musk already wants to colonize space, by one-way flight to Mars. The two are arch-enemies, by the way, and like to rake each other over the internet. The inventor of the “Facebook” development, initially intended for students, is responsible for the first actual “social network”, meaning social in the American terminology: non-professional, friendly contact. Zuckerberg inflated the term “friends” – the original idea can only be guessed at in the word.
The highly controversial friend exchange is number one in the world and its 38-year-old founder has an estimated fortune of $67 billion. Mark Zuckerberg was also criticized early on, initially by fellow students who accused him of stealing ideas. They were settled with tens of millions of dollars. There have also been conflicts with data protection, and with the US government, over voter rigging and other sins. For example, Facebook reserved the right to use user content commercially. Privately, Zuckerberg got into serious trouble when he bought a large piece of land in Hawaii, more than angering local residents. There was talk of “neo-colonialism”. The matter is still pending in court.
His latest vision of moving all of life into virtual spaces is not going down too well at the moment. The share price of the Facebook parent “Meta Platforms” – which also owns Instagram, Whatsapp and others – has fallen from around $380 to just over $100 since the beginning of the year. The construction of the virtual “metaverse” is stuck, there are fewer interested parties than expected for properties and shops in Nirvana. On the other hand, the man who wants to network the world lets himself be photographed in front of his laptop, on which the microphones and webcam are taped. It may be an indication of how reliable he thinks Facebook’s privacy protection is. Employees describe him as a kind of paranoid character.
Now Meta also reacted with mass layoffs because the good numbers of the Corona period are not sustainable. 11,000 people recently had to leave, about 13 percent of the workforce. The way in which this hit those affected at short notice and how it was communicated would be unthinkable in Germany. Shortly before the layoffs, thousands of employees registered with the US network “Blind”, where you can rate your employer – and find new jobs. Referring to the unprecedented layoffs, Zuckerberg said he “takes responsibility for the fact that things aren’t going so well — meta wasn’t going the way I expected.” This has certainly not appeased or reassured those affected, and neither has the stock exchanges.
A Nov. 22 announcement that Zuckerberg would be stepping down as Facebook CEO sent shares up 1.4 percent on the spot before Facebook/Meta denied the report as “fictitious.” After all, the boyish-looking multi-billionaire’s brutality extends to the entire tech industry in Silicon Valley, where he’s rapidly lost credibility since Facebook went public in 2012, making countless millionaires there. Since then, plenty of scandals have discredited Facebook. The accusation leveled at him by industry insiders is: “Zuckerberg copies every new idea, or buys it up and then stops development or closes the start-up in question.” Zuckerberg and Facebook are only “to be feared”.
Apple, in turn, is a story all its own. The company, best known today for its iPhones, also started out in a California garage owned by Steve Jobs’ parents. The founder of the computer manufacturer, who died in 2011, invented the Macintosh computer with the operating system of the same name in 1976 and thus created his own universe, sharply differentiated from the dominant world of Bill Gates with his Windows system. Jobs was not short of idiosyncrasies and quirky traits. He described himself as a Buddhist, was alternately vegan, fruitarian, supporter of alternative healing methods and invariably wore black turtlenecks. Money doesn’t interest him, he said (after his tenth million). He booted out his co-founder Steve Wozniak, disowned his daughter, and increasingly ran Apple like a cult of sorts, eventually being forced out of the company in 1985. After founding a new computer company, Apple brought him back in 1996 with his creation “Next Computer”. His motto back then: “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” The design, not as an external feature, but as a feature of the device, that was new.
Meanwhile, Apple was on the brink of bankruptcy. Steve Jobs’ big clean-up followed, followed by the invention of the “iMac” series and finally the iPod music player. The step to the iPhone was not far away. In the spirit of Jobs, the company still works today. It is the most valuable in the world, only temporarily supplanted by oil producer Saudi Aramco. Even in the general decline of technology stocks these days, Apple is holding up well: At around $150, the price is not miles away from the all-time high of $176. Otherwise: Secrecy is a trademark, Apple’s maximum penalty for betrayal of company secrets is immediate dismissal. Steve Jobs is still considered a role model for an entire generation, to whom he conveyed his motto during a performance at Stanford University: “Stay Hungry. stay foolish.” Steve Jobs’ old sandals were auctioned off a few days ago for $10,000.
Incidentally, his successor, the far less conspicuous Tim Cook, whom Jobs himself brought to Apple, is one of the few non-company founders in California who made it to a billionaire as CEO alone. Not in the league of people like Bill Gates, of course.
Elon Musk, currently the richest man in the world, is on everyone’s lips and dances at almost every wedding. He has been known for a long time, but not so popular. You could see how erratic the inventor was when he suddenly started selling flamethrowers in California in 2018. $500 a piece – “musk is finally making money,” the newspapers quipped. The marketing gimmick still causes trouble today – such a device was confiscated at German customs just a few days ago – violating weapons laws.
Musk is currently igniting, however, especially with his new acquisition Twitter. According to Musk, the social media platform, which he recently acquired for $44 billion, should become a haven for freedom of expression. To do this, the boss immediately dismissed the entire management and about half of the employees and called them and those who resigned something insulting: “The best people stay”. You will see. In Germany, at least, Twitter employees are resisting hiring
A lot of what surrounds the bosses is apparently smoke and mirrors and mythical – it is hardly known, but undisputed, that Elon Musk is not the founder of Tesla. He was only the main investor in a first round of financing. He later booted out the two Americans who founded the company. “How much money do you have to make before you blow your fuses?” asked IT journalist Joel Golby, and his answer was, “As much as Elon Musk”.
Gates, the founder of Microsoft, was sometimes considered a genius and sometimes a simple copier in the industry. Gates, however, is an example of how even the super-rich can change over the course of their careers – for the better, they think. He grabbed the monopoly for decades with his Windows operating system. The battle for the integration of one’s own web browser (then: Internet Explorer) with antitrust authorities, especially in Europe, is legendary. Gates’ company also repeatedly came up against competitors in its own industry. Whether Sun Microsystems or Digital Research and others: Microsoft had to admit time and time again that it had hijacked the products of the competition using unfair means. The company was about to split up in the United States.
Bill Gates was considered a manic driver, who, however, handed over the baton to his old friend and successor as CEO, Steve Ballmer, in 2000 and took over the title of “Chief Software Engineer” himself. Steve Ballmer quickly became legendary for his tantrums, sweeping across the stage like a dervish and making faces at product presentations. In business, he wanted to defeat Google and burned billions of dollars to do it. With “Windows Vista” Ballmer was responsible for the biggest misstep and also admitted it. Today he owns the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team, where he performs strange dances on the sidelines.
He was succeeded at Microsoft by Satya Nadella, who gradually steered the company out of the more controversial headlines — not to the detriment of earnings. Bill Gates turned into a benefactor in the background and focused primarily on medical aid for Africa. Not taken at face value by everyone, his transformation is nevertheless believable. A more humble demeanor and ample evidence of philanthropy have made Bill Gates one of the most popular corporate leaders.