Intel Corp. has a reputation for doing things "neatly" – as in orderly and methodical. It also makes “neat” things – as in “cool” products that drive great technological advancements. Nothing is “neat” about the recently announced departure of its president Renee James and the move is not being handled “neatly” by the management, either. James is leaving the company to “pursue an external CEO role,” but has “agreed to stay at Intel until January in order to transition the Executive Office,” the company said in a statement.
James and Intel should part ways promptly. Not in six months, not in three months but by the end of July. That would give the company about 30 days to get James’ handing over notes and give the departing executive enough time to clear her desk, say goodbye to colleagues and take a vacation before resuming at her new position, wherever that may be. Executive transitions can be “distracting” as Krzanich observed in a message to employees but drawing it out as Intel has chosen to do will only make the process even more complicated.
The decision to have James stay on for an extra six months is problematic for Intel and James on numerous levels. I have been writing about Intel for 16 years now and, for the first time, I am seriously concerned about its management and its future. The James move is symptomatic of recent missteps at the company that together sow doubts in the minds of observers about whether the world’s No. 1 semiconductor manufacturer by revenue can find its footing and maintain leadership of the industry.
It has been clear to observers for years that Intel is struggling with its years-long transition from a PC-focused operation to an enterprise building a competitive business for the digital world centered on the Internet of Things (IoT). I’ve always assumed the company’s management will eventually make that transition and remain on top of the market. Now, I’m having serious doubts about that assumption. The greatest factors in the company’s favor are its manufacturing expertise coupled with leading-edge semiconductor production technology as well as its deep engineering team and cash pile. But will these suffice if Intel continues to make missteps that erode the image of invincibility the company has built up over decades?
The handling of James’ departure is a fiasco that emphasizes the relevance of the above question. First, CEO Brian Krzanich’s decision to keep James on for six extra months is troubling. What exactly will she be doing at Intel over the next months until leaving finally in January? James herself said in a message to Intel employees that she would be ensuring “a smooth transition across all of my current areas of responsibility.”
Here’s a news flash for both Krzanich and James: she doesn’t need six months to do the transition and she won’t be effective at it if the process drags out for so long. Why? James, starting with the announcement of her departure on Thursday, July 2, is a deadweight at Intel. Customers and suppliers won’t take her seriously and neither will current subordinates and other employees. Her word won’t have the same force as before and any instructions she gives to subordinates will be seen as “recommendations”. Anyone who’s worked at any major institution should know that an executive who has given notice of departure is flotsam; everyone will be waiting for her to clear out.
Krzanich should have known this and should have either delayed the announcement of James’ departure – if she had critical projects to complete – or relieve her of those duties. The idea that James’ contributions over the next six months would be invaluable to “transition the Executive Office,” as the company said, is disturbing. Nobody is that indispensable. Not Krzanich, not the President of the United States and certainly not James. What if she had slipped on a sidewalk, banged her head against a stone and gone into a coma? The projects and the transition to a new executive would not take place? At this point, James is no longer an asset to Intel. She’s a distraction bothering on a liability. Her greatest value is at her next job and that’s what she needs to be prepping for.
The announcement of James’ departure also revealed some disturbing background information about the last executive appointments at Intel. In her letter to employees James said: “When Brian [Krzanich] and I were appointed to our current roles, I knew then that being the leader of a company was something that I desired as part of my own leadership journey. Now is the right time for me to take that next step.”
The statement above implies James and Krzanich jostled for the CEO job and she lost. Rather than leave then, though, she stayed on despite knowing her singular objective remained becoming CEO, at Intel or elsewhere. How effective could she have been at her position under Krzanich with the idea of becoming CEO somewhere burning deeply in her heart? I’m sure James gave her best to the company during the time but I also believe her effectiveness was compromised by her overarching desire to lead a major company.
Finally, the spate of new executive appointments following James’ pending departure raises more questions about the company’s future. What exactly is going on at Intel? Two executives Hermann Euo and Mike Bell are also leaving the company while some units have been merged and at least one other executive elevated to the company’s management committee. Why were these moves made now; what do they imply about the company’s evolution and; are these the last changes we should expect for a while from the company? Now that she’s leaving, will she also be recruiting from the company? I am betting James already has a job. Nobody leaves a senior level position at a major enterprise like Intel to start hunting for “an external CEO role.” She’s already a designated CEO.
Certain management moves can reinforce a company’s positive image or erode it. The long transition plan for James at Intel isn’t one of the company’s brightest decision whatever the spoken and unspoken rationale. There’s a public out there who believe Intel makes “neat” moves. This was a minus.
Bolaji Ojo is editor-in-chief and publisher of Electronics Purchasing Strategies. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone who promises to base his sometimes biased, possibly ignorant, occasionally irrelevant but absolutely stimulating thoughts on the subjective interpretation of verifiable facts alone. Any comments should be sent to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.