In yet another wild curve on the wacky road that Motorola's semiconductor business has traveled of late, Michel Mayer has been tapped to lead the chip operation, now called Freescale, out of the woods. Fasten your seat belts, because the door's not too reliable.
Motorola CEO Ed Zander named the former IBM semiconductor executive to the CEO slot at Freescale. For a few hours this was just a little confusing, since Freescale already had a CEO in Scott Anderson. Anderson will stay on as president.
So where does that leave the Freescale public offering? Perhaps in an even better position than it was before last week's personnel change. The industry buzz had started weeks before that the CEO's slot was open at the operation. Anderson is a longtime Motorolan who has strong support among the rank and file, but some industry analysts had grown concerned that Freescale, about to be spun out from Motorola, needed some outside blood.
Zander, an outsider to Motorola by virtue of his years at Sun Microsystems, either overheard the whispers or got a direct mandate from his board, and acted.
But whether it's a good idea to bring in another longtime chip guy from a place (IBM) that itself has done things certain ways for a long time is an open question. I've said it before, and I know it borders on heresy, but it's time to reassess the old-school aphorism that only a technologist can take the helm of a big tech company. Food king Lou Gerstner broke the mold at IBM a decade ago. Carly Fiorina has withstood the vitriol aimed at her to do a creditable job at Hewlett-Packard.
But for Freescale, it may not matter whether its new CEO is Mayer or Mahatma Gandhi. Changing a big company in any sector is a Herculean task. Former New York Times editor Howell Raines, writing his apologia for the Jayson Blair scandal, took up page after page in this month's Atlantic Monthly explaining the nature of change at a 150-year-old hidebound organization like the Times newsroom. Ideas, habits and processes are ingrained from content creators to human resources and up through management. Read the story if you have some time (www.theatlantic.com/issues/2004/05/raines.htm); it's instructive for any industry.
Mayer will likely face a similarly daunting task in the coming weeks at Freescale. We wish him luck.