If you really knew Scott McNealy, you would find out that … He is a hard-charging, self-deprecating man with a wicked sense of humor. He has an intensity about him that one might expect when he is “on,” but at the same time, he has a relaxed confidence that only comes with time and experience. He is articulate and focused and he has diverse interests and areas of concern. A straight shooter, McNealy has the old-school work ethic we greatly admire. His secret to success? Work hard. And then work some more.
We had the good fortune to sit down with Sun Microsystems co-founder McNealy when he was in Denver to give the keynote address at the Colorado Technology Association’s DEMOgala, which is a culminating event that followed their annual APEX Awards, and as good planning would have it, it fell in the same week as the inaugural of “Denver Start-Up Week”. McNealy founded a company called Wayin, headquartered in historic downtown Denver. It was in his office where we sat down for an early morning chat. So now, the man who sat at the helm of one of Silicon Valley’s biggest offspring, Sun Microsystems, is splitting his time between California, where his family still resides, and Colorado. We are delighted to have him here. Wayin is a great example of the type of company Denver is proud to be showcasing, and ICOSA is happy to highlight all of its successful innovation.
Our conversation with him was an easy one. Gayle Dendinger, CEO and founder of ICOSA, quickly established a rapport that seemed to be based on common experience and common values. The conversation started with a few laughs and then turned to the topics we like to highlight at ICOSA as Dendinger and McNealy exchanged ideas.
Vision is something all CEOs must have. McNealy is quick to admit, however, that it is a fleeting thing. Not only to us, but also in other interviews, has he spoken about the elusive nature of vision. One must be ready to realize the vision and then accept that the business landscape—particularly in technology—is so rapidly changing that a truly visionary leader must be able to adapt. He has been quoted saying, “Your business is going to change above, below and around you, and your direction is going to change so fast it’ll make your head spin.”
What, exactly, uniquely imbues a successful business leader with the ability to work in these circumstances? We are not sure, but it is clear when we watched the two CEOs talk that there is a special talent that they have honed and that they recognize immediately in one another. This mutual and shared skill set of leading organizations as they have is something it seems only experience grants. Seasoned leaders who have fought many battles recognize the scars in one another and admire each other’s tenacity. This is a foundation, perhaps, for why ICOSA’s conversation, CEO to CEO, was such a good and insightful one.
Connection as a topic is one thing McNealy could talk a lot about in the traditional sense of his businesses. Clearly, Sun Microsystems built an ecosystem of connections that was vast and far-reaching. He is famously known for the quote, “The network is the computer.” McNealy, like Dendinger, also acknowledged the “family of co-workers” that is built over time and the enormity of that as a CEO. He has been responsible over the years for 235,000 people’s jobs and, by default, their lives. He shared the fact that when people left Sun, he always tried to take the time to understand whether they were “running to something, which is fine, or were they running from something, which is not okay.” He believes, as we do, that the connections we make with the people with whom we work are vitally important. Teams are successful when the people on them are invested in the work they do and the people with whom they do it. Shared responsibility becomes a motivating factor as much as the drive to recognize individual and group success.
Leadership, McNealy has said, is about making leaders of your followers. Executive leadership at the CEO level, however, is a challenging thing to manage, the gentlemen agreed. As the CEO, a leader finds him/herself both alone and a part of a team, which is uniquely isolating. How does McNealy empower himself to manage some of that burden of isolation? Through sports, for one. He is known as a tremendous golfer and enjoys the individual performance aspect as a way in which to challenge his mind and body and force relaxation. He also enjoys hockey for its fast pace and the team aspects. Both sports are also something he can do with his sons.
If you knew Scott McNealy, you would know how important family is to him. At ICOSA we talk about the concept of reach. All of our motivation begins with our immediate network, which is our family. McNealy is also a huge family man. He has been married to the same woman since he was 27. They have four resilient and energetic children: Maverick, Dakota, Colt and Scout. When he made the decision to step down as CEO of Sun, it was for his boys. At the time they were 2, 4, 6 and 8 and he knew his first obligation was to them. We laughed together as we all talked about kids and, in Dendinger’s case, his beautiful grandchildren who are his muses. McNealy said people often ask him why he runs his kids around so much from school to sports and activities. His reply, “So that they are always too tired to do drugs!”
We loved that honest, straightforward approach because we share that view. The principles that guide our work at ICOSA are informed by our collective business experience. What we found so refreshing about McNealy was how approachable and unassuming he was with us over the days we worked with him and with his Wayin staff to make this interview and cover story happen. “Down-to-earth” actually does describe this iconic business leader despite his obvious personal and financial success.
Transformation and the importance of driving change is clearly something that is important to McNealy. He talked about this in the context of government. He is known to be outspoken in his criticism of the role government is playing right now and how it is hurting business, in his view. McNealy identifies himself as a Libertarian, though we did not really talk about politics in our interview. We talked about business and economics. The context, however, was in the form of a question from Dendinger as to why McNealy chose Colorado for Wayin’s headquarters. We will print his “Top Ten List of Why It Is Better to do Business in Colorado than California” elsewhere, but fundamentally, he told us he really thinks California has devolved into “the poster child for bad fiscal behavior.” Through over-regulation and taxation, among other things, it has become a wildly unattractive place for business, and it has created problems for the rest of the country. “At least Europe wants to keep Greece,” McNealy quipped. But he was quite serious. Businesses have to transform to survive, and leaders have to adapt to survive, but he worries about what is happening to the United States. Prosperity seems to be diminishing and as he said to us, “If you don’t have economic freedom, you can’t have personal freedom.”
Infrastructure for individual and personal responsibility is what’s needed. McNealy spoke about Milton Friedman, with whom he shares a mutual affiliation through Stanford, where Friedman worked through the Hoover Institution and which is McNealy’s undergraduate alma mater. McNealy’s work is informed by his down-home, old-school work ethic, which we share. He reflected quite a bit on his upbringing. His father was an autoworker. He was born in Michigan and did some of his early work in the auto industry. He reflected on the fact he always had boundless energy. Even as a child, he said he would often play until he practically collapsed, and then his mother sometimes had to toss water on him to wake him up. But, the point is that he was always moving—always eager to play, learn and work. He took ownership of his ability and energy and attributes that to his success. He talked to us about “unleashing entrepreneurship” in this country. And he reflected on the fact that one of the fastest growing suburbs in the country sits just outside the beltway in Washington, D.C., where government has become one of the biggest employers in the region. “This explosion is turning D.C. into Death Valley,” he said. Government should instead be focused on how to support private-sector growth and job creation, not on being a primary employer. He feels strongly that this is a problem in America.
Innovation in education now sits high on his priority list. Probably because he is raising four children and is actively involved in their lives, he is motivated to transform the way we consume education. He spoke to us about the “luggage on wheels” that his boys drag to and from school. Textbooks, he feels, which are “gratuitously revised,” are relics of another era. “By the way,” he reminds us, “2 + 2 still equals 4. You don’t need a revision for that.”
Curriki is his education undertaking (www.Curriki.org). With 45,000 learning assets and growing every day, it is becoming a platform where students, parents and teachers can find and consume good, rich, current content, and it—and other platforms and tools like it—are transforming the way people learn. Shouldn’t we be driving this process if we want the kids to be successful in the new world into which they are growing? Dendinger’s grandchildren are still small and not quite at the technology stage yet, but McNealy points out from his own experience, “When was the last time you had to force a kid to put down a text book? Never! On the other hand, give them a computer and a dynamic learning platform, and they never want to stop.” He points to this as both an opportunity and, again, an obligation of leadership. We have to support future generations in the best ways given the challenges they will face.
Mistakes happen—McNealy and Dendinger agreed on that point. Leaders, they agreed, just know how to make them matter. Leaders know how to bounce back bigger and stronger from their mistakes. Leaders, they suggested, recognize opportunity in their mistakes. And the ICOSA principle of continuity certainly applies here; leaders are persistent. Doggedly so. Leaders, even with the changing vision we talked about already, are driven to recognize success for themselves and their organizations at all costs sometimes. It is a skill set few will possess, but from which many can learn. And it is the convergence now of business, politics and education that really excites McNealy. When he talks about Wayin, the new company, one can see the light in his eyes.
Wayin’s business is to create mobile and web engagement platforms that enable conversations between individuals, brands and enterprises with their fans, customers, employees and communities. The company’s first product suite focused on enhancing employee engagement for the enterprise customer, and just recently it launched a new product called WayinHub, which is an easy-to-deploy microsite creation platform fueled by Twitter for brands to interact, drive marketing messages and increase sales with their most loyal consumers in real time. Wayin closed a $14 million series B funding round in February 2012, and that round brought the total investment to date to the neighborhood of $20 million. This infusion of capital enabled Wayin to expand its staff to 35; build and deploy initial products; and forge business relationships with political campaigns, consumer products companies and private sector enterprises while McNealy bounces between his life in California and the work he is doing in Denver.
The art of war or the game of business? Both are blood sports. Back to where we started in our conversation, the two men swing the conversation to strategy for success. There is no magic bullet or simple answer. It’s a game of trial and error. McNealy has said that you have to “be noisy” and be “willing to pick fights.” We generally agree—though Dendinger is less inclined to pick a fight and more inclined to concede, but he will never walk away from one.
You also have to be willing to constantly innovate and try new things. After 28 years with Sun, McNealy threw himself headlong into Curriki and Wayin. For Dendinger, who built his successful logistics business, CAPLogistics, which just celebrated its 30-year anniversary in September, ICOSA is now the encore career that consumes much of his time (except on the precious days every other week when he babysits those grandkids). Both men approach these two vocations with the same vigor and enthusiasm they applied to their earlier works, but with different formulas for success, different benchmarks for progress and a few lumps and bruises. But both men, if you knew them, are regarded as people have done well without breaking rules, with personal integrity intact. Both men can agree to live by the closing words of McNealy’s parting letter to the employees of Sun. He simply closed the letter by telling them all to continue doing good work and to “kick butt and have fun!” We think that is an excellent close. We like to kick butt and have fun, and we believe doing good and doing well are also not mutually exclusive, as McNealy and Dendinger both continue to prove.
Thanks to Scott McNealy and his team at Wayin, especially Kelsey Cullen and Tammy Schiff, for helping us connect so we can share these insights from this iconic and admired leader. To learn more about the Colorado Technology Association’s DEMOgala visit, www.ColoradoTechnologyAssociation.org. To learn more about Denver Start-Up Week visit, www.DenverStartUpWeek.com. To learn more about Wayin visit, www.wayin.com.