Rising Sun

Rising Sun


Scott McNealy has four sons and he named the first one Maverick.  That gives you a clue as to what to expect from the co-founder and chairman of Sun Microsystems , who was on fine form today, as he shared some of his top tips with a group of entrepreneurial Brits, gathered at London’s Le Meridien Hotel, facilitated by the excellent Stewart Townsend of Sun’s UK Start-Up team.

Scott’s first hope for the assembled group was that they were busy being controversial.  If most people weren’t looking at their businesses, predicting they were crazy, then they were probably doing something wrong.  This hope was followed swiftly by the next guideline;  needing to be correct.  The scene was set, and with a final exhortation to ‘Go Big’ and to use ‘Somebody Else’s Money’, the brief opening remarks were over and the floor was open for questions.

Today, Sun has revenues of almost 14 billion dollars and employs over 33,000 people. Scott McNealy co -founded the company in 1982, at the age of 27. To this day, his best advice to budding entrepreneurs is to “do it while you’re single and don’t yet have kids”.  On a touchingly personal note, he reflected that “your choice of spouse is the most important decision you’ll ever make”.  Asked about the biggest obstacle he’d faced in business during the early years he replied “staying awake” and, at the time, he would joke that he “led an extremely balanced life.  I spend time in sales, marketing, manufacturing…”

Some of Scott’s most interesting insights related to his views on management.  He’s a great believer in what he calls the ‘rule of 11’; that is that every executive should have 11 reports, rather than the 6 so often prescribed by so-called management gurus.  His rationale is simple;  With 6 reports, you’re tempted to manage – with 11 you have no choice but to lead.  He remembers that one of his greatest realisations was that “you work for the people who report to you, not the other way round”.  As Sun grew, keeping in touch with the staff became more and more difficult and so his friday night beers evolved into a regular radio show to all employees.  Unlike Sun’s CEO Jonathan Schwartz, who is a highly regarded blogger (“I’m not a great writer”), Scott found that radio worked even better than video, where people can get distracted looking at someone’s face.  “With radio, they can concentrate on what you’re saying.”

Another great insight was the idea that “meetings are not the place to make decisions”.  He described how he would often use meetings to become clear on each person’s perspective before thanking them for their input and telling them that he would be making a decision within the next 48 hours. 

On the subject of risk, Scott’s view is that “the biggest gambles are always people gambles” and in one of the more serious answers of an often light-hearted session, he concluded that, in all of his time with Sun, he “never took any, legal, financial or ethical risks”.  He is careful here, to distinguish these from business or engineering risks, which he sees as entirely healthy and continues to take and encourage.

With his statesmanlike presence, it is easy to imagine Scott McNealy chairing the board of a multi-billion dollar company.  What makes him different though, is that it is equally easy to imagine him chilling out, holding a hotdog and a beer on a Saturday afternoon.  He smiles easily, and tells stories with a likeable degree of self-deprecation.  Throughout, it was clear that he is an incredibly smart communicator who would make an incredible mentor for a CEO of any stage in their business.  From the heights of his role today, he seemed to genuinely enjoy spending time with a roomful of Brits from companies including Last.fm, GlassesDirect and Favor.it.  He encouraged all of us to write to him and, as he shared his email address, he told us that he was “almost all caught up on email”…

The chairman of Sun, with 33,350 employees, who is on a business trip to London on GMT, and has spent the last twenty years with “just email me” as one of his catch phrases, is ALMOST ALL CAUGHT UP ON EMAIL. This, reader, is a man who walks his talk.  And his talk ended on a suitably ambitious and inspiring note.  Moving towards the door, he bade us farewell with the words;  

“Good Luck, kick some butt.  Google aint the last answer here”




3 Replies to “Rising Sun”

  1. Terrific wrap-up Oli. I am just researching a new book on leadership and I found the insight on numbers (11 or 6) and approach very interesting.

    Advertising guru Winston Fletcher once said that ‘meetings are places where great ideas are taken and quietly strangled’. If that is true then meetings must also be places where decisions are taken on an ever-dwindling number of ideas. So perhaps Scott McNealy is right. Let’s have your thoughts and ideas – with no critique – and I’ll take the decision later.

  2. Fantastic summary, and I think captured the atmosphere in the room and Scotts dynamic personallity, I can proudly say I work for him and his company. Glad you appreciated it, and everyone else did as well, now the big push, tell all the small companies to work with Sun…Startup Essentials can help anyone.

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