Bob Miano's Blog

An Executive journal

Transformative Years

This article appears as the second part of a blog series on transformative leadership, published ahead of the March 2014 Harvey Nash Leadership Lecture with Rudy Giuliani.

In my first blog post on transformative leadership I wrote how Rudy Giuliani has consistently acted as a catalyst for positive change throughout his distinguished career. In this second installment I want to focus specifically on how transformative leaders are made, or at least influenced, early in their careers.

The most impactful change is often born when an individual chooses to paddle against the flow of established behavior. Individuals at a relatively early stage of their career can be more willing to enact a career decision that more established peers would consider too risky. Exposure to other change agents during these early transformative years can also provide valuable context that, to a transformative leader, makes a potentially reckless career decision more calculated.

In the case of Giuliani, he achieved success going against the grain in early 1980's. In 1981, Giuliani was named Associate Attorney General in the administration of President Ronald Reagan, the third-highest position in the Department of Justice and a very significant career step for the, then 37 year old, lawyer.

Giuliani was responsible for supervising the U.S. Attorney Offices' federal law enforcement agencies, the Department of Corrections, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the United States Marshals Service. As Associate Attorney General, Giuliani worked closely with President Reagan's appointment for United States Attorney General, William F. Smith.

However, in 1983, Giuliani sought appointment to the post of U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, which was technically a demotion. Certainly a risk to his government career advancement, and not in line with the hard charging, job-title status-driven, environment of the early 1980's.

Giuliani wanted to personally litigate cases. After being appointed he forged a reputation for prosecuting drug dealers, organized crime, and corruption in government. As I noted in my first blog, Giuliani delivered transformational change in this role, amassing a record of 4,152 convictions and only 25 reversals. It was in this position that he first gained national prominence which provided a springboard for a Mayoral run in 1989.

About the same time, in 1980, when he was only 24 years old, another young transformative leader became the 30th employee of a fledgling technology start-up called Microsoft. His name was Steve Ballmer. During 33 years at Microsoft, Ballmer's reputation for transformative leadership has grown alongside the vast fortunes made by the technology business he has led.

However, Ballmer's decision to join his friend Bill Gates, a fellow student he met at Harvard, in building and selling personal computer operating software was taken in an era when computing was more the domain of NASA engineers than families. This was a market that didn't exist, and would have to be created alongside the Windows platform and the entire business structure that would be needed to establish it.

A certain level of personal and professional courage was required to make Ballmer's decision to join Microsoft. His resume at the time only included graduating university and two years as an assistant product manager at Procter & Gamble, where incidentally, he shared an office with Jeffrey Immelt, who later became CEO of General Electric. In spite of his limited experience, and that he was enrolled in Stanford's Graduate School of Business, Ballmer dropped out to work for Microsoft.

Once hired, Ballmer learned quickly on-the-job, while developing his leadership style in a range of management positions, heading several Microsoft divisions, including operations, operating systems development, and sales. Ballmer was promoted to President of Microsoft in 1998, making him the de facto number two in the company to the Chairman and CEO, Bill Gates, and in January 2000, Ballmer was officially named Chief Executive Officer.

Ballmer oversaw a dramatic shift away from the company's PC-first heritage, replacing most major division heads in order to break down the "talent-hoarding fiefdoms," a highly controversial decision at the time. However, few could argue with the transformative results. Under Ballmer's tenure as CEO, Microsoft's annual revenue has surged from $25 billion to $70 billion, while its net income has increased 215 percent to $23 billion, and its gross profit is now double that of Google or IBM.

Transformative leadership abilities cannot be created in a vacuum. As both the Giuliani and Ballmer stories show, being given responsibility that stretched them early in their career and working in an environment with other change agents significantly enhanced their transformative style of leadership, that subsequently grew with time and experience.

For Giuliani, it was working with United States Attorney General William F. Smith and other senior political figures that enabled him to see the potential of returning from Washington D.C. to litigate big cases in the Southern District of New York, which led to national exposure for his prosecutorial record and an opportunity to pursue elected office.

For Ballmer it was even earlier in his career, meeting Bill Gates at Harvard and Jeffrey Immelt at Procter & Gamble that helped him see the transformational opportunity at Microsoft over finishing his graduate studies at Stanford.

However, other people do not make decisions for transformative leaders. They make their own choices and take advantage of their exposure to other change agents. Those early transformative years can be a spark that fires a transformative drive in an individual, but it requires enormous tenacity to maintain that drive throughout a career.

The 2014 Harvey Nash Leadership Lecture with Rudy Giuliani, at The Plaza Hotel, New York on March 4, 2014, is an invitation only event. If you are interested in learning more, please email your details to Huong Thai, huong.thai@harveynashusa.com