Innovation & CEO Tenure

Vinod Khosla interviewed Larry and Sergey from Google a couple weeks ago. I recommend watching the entire thing when you have some time.


At one point Larry explains the fact that the average Fortune 500 CEO's tenure is approximately 4 years. He notes that it's really, really difficult to solve big problems in 4 years. Twenty years, maybe. But 4 years, no way. So as a result we have a system where our largest companies are acting in a way that is very short-sighted.

We all know the stories of the giant, successful companies not seeing how things were changing and ignoring the little upstarts only to eventually get toppled by them. We've always chalked this up to naivety and arrogance on the part of large companies. Polaroid is a great example. They ignored the digital camera and didn't recognize what its impact would be until it was too late and eventually found themselves bankrupt.

But when you consider Larry's point, that CEOs are only focused on 4 years out, you can see how it actually made sense for Polaroid's leadership to ignore the digital camera. New innovations move slowly, the best thing for Polaroid's stock price (in the short-term) was to continue to focus on their core business -- not to pivot and get ahead of a trend.

We're about to see the same thing happen to big car companies. Self driving cars are the future. And they're going to operate much differently than the cars we have today. But it'll take a while, maybe 10 or 15 years. If you're the CEO of Ford or General Motors, why should you redirect your resources away from regular cars, if you're really only worried about the next four years? You're much better off focusing on the here and now. Very logical, but also the thing that will wipe them out of the self driving car business. We can see it right now, it's going to happen, but they won't do anything about it.

I'm not arguing that companies should have 20 year terms for their CEOs, but companies do need to recognize that their short-term focus paralyzes the company in dealing with trends and getting ahead of the small upstarts. Companies would act very differently if they were looking further around the corner than the tenure of their leaders allows.