CEO Review-Larry Ellison, Oracle

One of the most exciting ‘past time’ activities I enjoy indulging in is watching startup documentaries. I find it particularly interesting watching how different founders are which brings

me to the one misconception about startups- There’s no one right way’. My research has revealed that a company simply takes the face of its founders. From Bill Gates to our highlight today, Larry Ellison. So let’s dive in and see what it takes to build a multibillion-dollar database management system that literally powers up any tech device or software you can think of.

Oracle is one of the largest & most successful technology companies in the whole world. And it takes a character like Larry to get it there. The Billionaire would be perceived by many as a spendthrift, a non-typical CEO type. His own former coworkers once said out of everything you read about how leaders should be, Larry is none of them, except the fact that’s he’s resilient & determined.

A shrewd business person, Larry was born in 1944. At a very young age one day at the dinner table, his dad uttered, “By the way, you’re adopted. And we’re having meatloaf tonight.” This one experience would go on to shape Larry’s perception of the world & himself. According to my non-expertise psychological opinion, Larry went on to prove to the world, his real parents, his adopted parents that he was worth something. A very important observation is made here, most founders are driven by different human factors that sometimes are irrational even as Steve Jobs admitted(an adopted child as well). The experiences we go through in life shape our motivations, dreams or agenda. As Noah Wasserman describes in the book Founder’s Dilemmas, some want to be either rich or king. Larry wanted to be both! And this is how he did it.

BMW Oracle Racing owner Larry Ellison poses next to the center hull of his BOR 90 boat in Valencia, Spain, on Friday, Feb. 5, 2010. Although the America’s Cup has always been about ego, the billionaires involved in the current edition may have let theirs get out of hand. The courtroom rather than the water has been the focus in the buildup to the 33rd edition of the sailing classic, which will be sailed as a best-of-three series from Feb. 8. (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)

SAN FRANCISCO — NOVEMBER 14: Oracle CEO Larry Ellison delivers a keynote address at the 2007 Oracle Open World conference November 14, 2007 in San Francisco, California. Oracle Open World runs through November 15. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

  • Setting his own rules, living by his own standards

Larry dropped out of college after just one & a half years in school. He was an average student in studies but most importantly, he wanted to define his own structure and was never much of the ‘study & get hired’ type. He started working for software companies in California but didn’t last long because of his bossy attitude and ‘I’m the best’ mantra. He was often heard by his colleagues boasting of his prowess in business & that he was more superior than all the other co-workers in the office. Confidence or too much ego? I leave it up to you.

One assignment that would, in turn, be the turning point for larry & the beginning footprint for Oracle was a job to develop a database management system to manage CIA intelligence. While a previous research article by IBM had shown a need in this field, IBM would not go on to pursue this idea & Larry jumped on the opportunity & maximised it. (Seems IBM had a lot of misses that decade because that’s also when Steve Jobs saw their inertia in driving the tech industry.)

Larry got his former colleagues & convinced them to work on the idea. As a basic programmer himself, he went on to hire experienced programmers to handle the software while he was in charge of sales. Again choosing to prove himself, Larry was what many would call ‘ an extreme salesperson’. Almost admirable I must say. You know, the kind of hawker who can sell you an umbrella when its 39 degrees? Larry went on a selling spree which would, later on, bring Oracle a lot of issues.

  • Should founders be controlled? If so by whom?

A key concept in the Founder’s Dilemma book. According to Noah, one can either choose to be extremely wealthy & cede control of the company or choose maximum control e.g through equity but not be the richest man at the table. But Larry wanted both. His domineering attitude & need for self-worth, made him make risky business decisions. He almost had no eye for danger & probably even lived for it. The only problem is, in the business world, a lack of structure can prove very disastrous.

As the early coworkers admitted, Larry would go ahead and say ‘half truths’ when pitching to customers just to close the deal. He would sell features that Oracle had not even started working on. The lack of structure in the business department brought a lot of issues to the product & engineering teams who often didn’t agree or weren’t consulted in the first place.

These management practices by Larry would almost cost the company over 700Mil US Dollars with the release of Oracle 7. Customers complained of over promises and under delivering in the new system. Customer relationship management & support was almost non-existent. This proves another key misconception millennials believe about startups- A startup is positioning itself to be a company. A company needs structure in terms of policies, written guidelines, defined culture to take it to where it needs to be. Think of it as raising a child. Can you just say the child will learn between yes or wrong on its own? Of course not. The child has to learn proper etiquette & mannerisms so they can thrive in the world to come. Your startup is your baby. Give it rules or it will out rule you.

The Oracle board hired a new CEO to handle the business operations of the company. However, he didn’t stay too long as well, siteing once that Larry made all the decisions. He didn’t agree with the conquer or die philosophy Larry had established with the sales team. The high performance oriented company lost many employees every year due to very high sales targets. Nonetheless, the move to take Larry proved smart as Oracle profits improved dramatically that year.

One key management takeaway at this point is the importance of culture in an organisation. Founders need to think early on of what their desired culture will be. However, this mostly is shaped by what founders value personally which can(as seen by Oracle) prove detrimental to the company. I would suggest checking out the best-performing companies in the world and looking at their values, principles & management practices. Chances are there’s a lot of similarities and recurring themes e.g customer first, keep employees happy etc

Known as one never to give up, Larry picked battles with huge giants in the startup scene including Bill Gates, SAP & even running up against the government in a lawsuit. He believed in being number one at any cost. Even admitting to trying to uncover dirt about Microsoft so he can overtake Bill Gates as the richest man in US.

What has further fuelled his ambitious & somewhat insane lifestyle is also a success. He has achieved & continues to achieve most of what he sets his mind on. Reminds me a bit of Donald Trump. Even at 74, what’s clear is that this man is unstoppable. Some may hate him, others adore him, but I don’t think he cares. He decides what the world should look like & goes on ahead to make it that way!

My takeaways:

What I don’t like:

  1. A win no matter what business culture
  2. A leader who thinks he’s better than everyone else(and makes it known!)
  3. A lack of company structure
  4. Lack of ‘humanness’ in a company
  5. Silly competitive wars

What I like:

  1. A high level of confidence & self-belief
  2. A performance oriented culture
  3. A visionary
  4. Relentlessness & ‘no quitting’ attitude
  5. ‘Don’t stop & ask for directions’ CEO type

All in all, Larry is now one of my most favourite CEO/Former CEOs in the world. It takes guts to see the world in a different way and to be unapologetic about it. As series Madam Secretary once said,”There are those who think outside the box & there are those who see no box’. Larry is clearly living in his own world. But hey, who wouldn’t want that!

Originally published at bizzlyblog.wordpress.com on April 10, 2017.

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Stella Ngugi

HR Generalist| Founder @JobonicsHR | Where HR, Tech & Entrepreneurship meet | 🇰🇪 IVisit stellangugi.com for more info.