Some Job Advice for Twitter CEO Ev Williams

Twitter CEO Ev Williams

Twitter, the darling of social networks, finally announced plans this month to make money on its 130 million (and growing) users. With the vision mapped, it's now about execution. That humdrum blocking and tackling required to grow a small enterprise to big boy proportions. It's about creating processes. It's about building infrastructure. It's about hitting milestones. And it's not what CEO and co-founder Evan Williams is used to.

Williams, 38, likes to start companies. Born on a farm, Williams dropped out of University of Nebraska, Lincoln after a year and a half. He co-founded Pyra and spun off a note-taking tool called Blogger, which he sold to Google in 2003 for $50 million in stock. The following year, he co-founded Odeo, a podcasting company, and then spun off Twitter in 2007, growing it to 50 employees last year. Williams is a classic startup entrepreneur, but he has limited experience managing a large company--and Twitter will employ 350 people by year's end, and expects finish 2011 with a headcount of 700. Rumors have surfaced that he may already be on the way out. Does Williams have what it takes to lead one of the sweetest, fastest-growing companies out there?

"CEOs are hired and fired by the board," says David Charron, Executive Director of the Lester Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Haas School of Business. "To the extent they do what the board believes is the right thing, they're as good as they can be."

For now, at least, Williams appears to be well-liked by his overseers. "At board meetings usually you have to point out to CEOs that there's an issue, but with Ev he's already there and he's got solutions," says board member and investor Todd Chaffee of Institutional Venture Partners. "He's smart in terms of intellectual horse power and also a good businessman. He's got good intuition and he uses his gut--that's been my experience of the best leader." Still, boards can be fickle--not to mention political. From BP and GM to Hewlett Packard, MySpace, and Apple Computers, stories of bloody boardroom battles abound, all ending with the CEO being tossed out for a new guy.

Another thing Williams is doing right, according to recruiters: Surrounding himself with smart senior players. He's added major talent during the past year, laying the groundwork to scale and make the company profitable. Notable hires include:
* CFO Ali Rowghani, formerly CFO of Pixar/Disney
* COO Dick Costolo, formerly Group Product Manager for social ads at Google
* General Counsel Alexander Macgillivray, formerly Senior Product and Intellectual Property Counsel at Google
* Director Engineering and Operations, Mike Abbott, formerly Senior Vice President of Software and Services at Palm
* Human Resources Janet Van Huysse, formerly a business partner in the human resources department at Sony Pictures

Adding high caliber execs is key for CEOs who want to keep their jobs. "You've got to have the guns yourself or know how to get the guns around you," said John Keller, senior client partner and member of CEO & Board Services at Korn/Ferry International. "The better founders understand that to take the company to the next level, they can't be afraid of sharing the business growth with others."

Founders also have to learn how to make the transition from managing to leading. When Williams first started the company, along with Biz Stone and Jack Dorsey, it was a tight knit group of friends, and friends of friends. As the company has expanded, the direct leadership Williams once provided is simply no longer possible. And it's difficult to gauge how well Williams is learning to manage, unless you work at Twitter (the company did not make anyone available for comment). According to Frank Addante, who has launched six companies with a combined market value of $1 billion, making the transition from founder to leader is tricky. "When you go from 40 to 400 people, you have dissolution for how productive they are," he says. "One of the most difficult things is information and communication sharing."

Burnout is still a major risk, says Russell Reynolds' Charley Geoly, but that's true of most all CEOs. Right now, with a strong board and senior talent to guide him, Williams could lead Twitter's mass expansion with minimal growing pains. "He's in it for the long haul," says board member Chaffee. "Don't underestimate Ev--he can scale a lot of ways."

[Image via flickr/joi]

Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that Scott Forstall had been hired by Twitter, we regret the error.

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2 Comments

  • CarlisleGroup

    As an entrepreneur and small business owner, plans are good, but the right people are better. With the right people, plans can adapt, evolve or devolve, without friction. If the team gets caught up in the processes and policy building the company will be sold in short order, if it's lucky. While there is no strict single panacea, having bright minds with the right voices, egos, and vision goes a long, long, long way to succeeding. And success doesn't mean the big cash-out or the bottom-line growth anymore - it's about success for everyone in the company. Being part of a success helps others feel good about everything, generally, which translates into a better economy.

  • Bryan Lyle

    "Scott Forstall, former vice president of iOS software at Apple" - former? Did I miss an announcement somewhere?