Motorola's Brown on 'Blinding' success

Motorola, once the most dominant cell-phone maker in the world, has fallen mightily in the past couple of years. But the Schaumburg (Ill.) communications-gear manufacturer is now clawing its way back—sustained by the performance of its broadband, government, and enterprise equipment businesses even as the flagship cell-phone division continues its struggle for profitability. Though the turnaround is far from complete, some light can be seen at the end of the tunnel. Motorola co-CEO Gregory Q. Brown, who was chief operating officer in 2007 when Motorola's recent fall from grace began, talked with BusinessWeek's Roger O. Crockett about some of the lessons learned.
Was hubris, born of Motorola's Razr success, a factor in Motorola's decline?
I think success is one of the biggest impediments to growth. It can be blinding. It can reinforce a historical or traditional way of doing things.
What do you mean?
Sustainable success has to be earned every day. And sometimes, a hit product can mask the brutal reality that more work needs to be done. I also believe that successful organizations have an "outside in" perspective. They are consistently looking at their work and the results through the lens of their customers or investors.
How did Motorola stray from this approach?
In Motorola's case, historically we viewed things inside out as opposed to outside in. And at certain points in our history we developed an unhealthy hubris that manifested itself in us thinking we knew what was best for customers, as opposed to listening in an unfiltered and unemotional way to what customers were telling us.
Give me an example.
It's particularly noteworthy on the mobile-devices side. We should have been more in tune with the customer experience instead of focusing on form factors [the physical shape of the phone]. We didn't adapt with the right level of speed and customer input to where the puck was going.
Do you feel like there was what Jim Collins describes as an undisciplined pursuit of more, as in "more Razrs, more Razrs?"
Sometimes organizations have a lack of free-flowing communications. There needs to be speed, and no filters and almost a free-flowing horizontal flow of information, not a hierarchical one. We needed to face reality sooner around technology trends and device trends.
Successful organizations have their ear to the ground externally and internally. And they don't rely on level, hierarchy, or process. They actually seek dissenting viewpoints and seek reality at levels that are as close to the customer as possible. They listen to the drumbeat of what's going on in the market, and to the reality of what's going on inside the business in terms of the ability to execute and adapt.
What could you have done differently with the cell-phone strategy?
We should have faced reality sooner around technology trends and device trends. Everybody can always do a better job of listening to the customer. Great firms react with speed. They're resilient and they reinvent. They are not comfortable with the status quo and they have a healthy level of paranoia. We have to be vigilant about ensuring that there is a healthy level of candor and transparency throughout the organization. And operating with confidence and with humility are good characteristics for well-run companies.
How important is it to have the right team in place?
Companies are only as strong as the team. Successful firms are always putting a premium on people, talent, depth, and training. You want to make sure that you have the right people in the right positions to drive an organization forward strategically, operationally, and financially.
Did Motorola err by placing the wrong leader in charge of its flagship phone division?
I'd just say that businesses are only as good as the leadership running those businesses. Talent matters in a big way. Do you have a one-trick pony or is this firm run by a team? Building a high-performance team with complementary skills but common values is pretty important.
How do you really know that you have the right people?
You continually check. You seek information, talk to customers, partners, associates. You do whatever it takes to get a realistic pulse of the business. Companies have business processes, committee meetings, operations reviews. Seek information within that framework but make damn sure you seek it outside of that, too. You have to make sure you're creating an environment where disagreement is fine and constructive criticism is welcomed. It's critical. Otherwise you breath your own fumes.
What would you have done differently?
Be more grounded in the reality of what was going on in real time or close to real time. That gives you a greater opportunity to adapt as opposed to being reactive. I believe that this firm is getting stronger. Companies go through cycles. To the extent that this 80-year-old company has resilience to sustain, we will do just fine. In many parts of Motorola that reinvention is well under way.
Collins warns against impulsive turnarounds. How do you make this one last?
It takes years to change a culture. Motorola has been known for quality, technology, capability, and innovation. We've also done as consistent a job of being customer-oriented and moving with speed. Extending the bedrock of our traditional values and taking the opportunity to incorporate the new ones will strengthen the culture. We are taking steps but there's always more work to be done. You are never done. Achievements are temporary. You are always in a mentality of continuous improvement.