Janiece Webb, 47
Senior VP, Personal-Networks Group, Motorola Inc.
Janiece C. Webb was barely 18 years old when she started making her mark at Motorola Inc. Her job testing semiconductors on the graveyard shift at the company’s Phoenix plant was mind-numbing work. But Webb’s questioning nature and her willingness to speak up meant that something out of the ordinary was bound to happen. “I would just ask, ‘Why are we doing this?’ ” she remembers. ” ‘Why do we sit around for 8, 10, sometimes 12 hours when the machines on the line break down and wait for the mechanics to fix them? There must be a better way.’ “
The shift supervisor figured that he knew how to handle his curious employee: “He’d say, ‘You’re being paid to straighten leads. Shut up and color.’ ” But even as a young production-line worker, Webb showed a knack for getting people to buy into her ideas. She would appeal to their self-interest and would suggest changes in a way that didn’t come across as threatening. “I asked my supervisor if he could give me 10 minutes any time of the day or night when I wasn’t on shift, so I could talk to him about doubling production,” she says. “That got his attention.”
With her supervisor’s blessing, Webb put together a troubleshooting manual with tips on how to operate machinery to avoid jams and how to make simple repairs. Then she rallied her team to see how far they could push their new efficiency. “I said, ‘Let’s set a goal.’ ” Her blue eyes flash like the big diamond earrings she’s wearing. ” ‘We can kick first and second shifts’ butts.’ “
It says a lot about Janiece Webb, now 47, that she can still get worked up about a challenge that she conquered 28 years ago. Today, as senior vice president in charge of the company’s wireless-Internet business, she holds a key job at Motorola. But the relentless spirit of that spunky assembly-line worker is never far from the surface of a now-polished corporate executive. Webb has traveled this far because she knows how to build bridges: between her past and her present, between high-flying strategic vision and in-the-trenches business reality, between the old-school Motorola and the tumultuous opportunities of a wireless Web. “I’ve always been a human modem,” she says. “I’ve created peace between the marketers and the engineers, between the hard-core techies and the salespeople.”
Her relationships inside Motorola start with her own team. The 900 people in the personal-networks group are in some ways a microcosm of the entrenched interests and turf consciousness that pervaded Motorola in the past. With Webb’s help, the company is trying to shed those destructive habits. Some members of the group are there because they are known and trusted by other parts of Motorola, whose cooperation is essential if Webb’s wireless-Internet crusade is to succeed. Other members are young, energetic, irreverent, bright — the next generation of Janiece Webbs. A few others came to Motorola from the computer industry, and Webb is using them to infect the rest of the team with a bias toward building relationships with software developers — something new for Motorola.
“This job is testing me like no other,” she says. “It’s like trying to train speed swimmers to do synchronized swimming. The resources at Motorola are powerful, and people here are saying, ‘I’m an expert, I know my game, don’t mess with it.’ But I’m saying the rules have changed. It’s not enough anymore to be the fastest guy in the pool. We’re being judged on how much we’re in sync.”
For all of Webb’s savvy and drive, though, there’s no question that she’s in for one heck of a test. Motorola, an icon of innovation, quality, and growth in the 1980s, crashed to earth in the 1990s, unable to adjust its deeply ingrained culture to a world transformed by the Internet. With $33.1 billion in revenue last year, Motorola is still a giant. But it is not nearly as nimble as it needs to be. Despite being the world’s second-largest cell-phone maker (after Nokia) in a hot market for wireless communications, Motorola is still a laggard when it comes to growth and profitability — not to mention style and design.
Under CEO Christopher B. Galvin, Motorola has been working mightily to regain its former glory. The company has cut costs and has learned from its stumbles. But if Motorola is going to become a high-growth company again, then it has to claim a leadership position in the wireless-Internet business. That puts responsibility squarely on the cashmere-covered shoulders of Janiece Webb. And it won’t be enough to sell piece parts like Web-enabled cell-phones, which will quickly become commodities. To make a difference, Webb and her team have to design, build, and sell complete wireless-Internet systems that go end to end — from transmission equipment to software to handsets — and that can be woven into the next generation of wireless systems already being put in place by such companies as Deutsche Telekom AG, NTT DoCoMo, and Vodafone Group PLC.
“Janice is the kind of leader that Motorola needs times 10,” says Noel Tichy, 54, a business professor at the University of Michigan and an adviser to change-minded CEOs such as Ford’s Jacques Nasser and GE’s Jack Welch. “She’s got the guts to be a change agent in an organization that traditionally has not rewarded change.”
Overcoming Barriers, Breaking Down Boundaries
Looking back, Janiece Webb’s life has the symmetry of a fairy tale: A poor white girl from a Latino neighborhood on the outskirts of Tucson leaves home, takes a job on the factory floor at Motorola, and climbs through the ranks. She’s a natural leader, and Motorola steers her through a series of tough assignments. In spite of the male culture that surrounds her, she thrives. She travels the world, accumulates a wealth of business sophistication, and makes more money than she ever dreamed she would.
But like all fairy tales, this one has its dark moments too. Webb’s father died in a car accident when she was 2 years old, and her mother remarried a copper miner. Both of her parents were alcoholic, and money was scarce. One of Webb’s earliest memories is the feeling of hot dust between her toes as she stood in the barren lot in front of her house, barefoot as usual. When she decided to join the Girl Scouts, her parents told her that she was on her own in that pursuit. So she found an old uniform at a secondhand-clothing store and earned the money to buy it herself. Week after week, she endured the stigma that set her apart at troop meetings. “My uniform was old and ugly, and all the other girls had fresh little uniforms. My parents did not teach me how to participate in life,” she says. “I think they were intimidated by it.”
She left home at 16, and, two years later, she followed a boyfriend to Phoenix, 200 miles to the north. She got a job testing semiconductors on the assembly line at Motorola. Her boyfriend’s father encouraged her to consider college, and, with Motorola’s help, she started attending classes at the University of Arizona during the day and working the graveyard shift at the plant.
At Motorola, it didn’t take long for Webb to get noticed. She rose quickly through a series of jobs in Motorola’s semiconductor group, moving first to Florida, then bouncing back and forth between Chicago and Arizona. She married another Motorola employee. The career shuttle wreaked havoc on her studies. It took her 12 years to complete a bachelor’s degree in business administration. Somewhere along the way, Webb’s paycheck and responsibilities surpassed those of her husband. She was 20 when they were married — “too young,” she now says — and her advancement put extra strain on the relationship. In 1985, after 12 years, Webb and her husband divorced.
At Motorola, meanwhile, Webb was growing accustomed to breaking through the glass ceilings that had limited the advancement of other women managers. At 27, she penetrated a bastion of maleness, taking over responsibility for the missile-target-detection device that Motorola made for the U.S. Navy. When she got up to make her first presentation, the admiral in charge of weapons programs thought that she was a clerk checking the microphones. “Okay, honey, I think we’ve got it fixed,” he said. “Let’s bring up the next speaker.” He was seated in the front row of an auditorium that held 300 men — mostly naval officers, along with a contingent of senior executives from the major defense contractors. Webb was the only woman. “Excuse me, admiral,” she said. “My name is Janiece Jordan from Motorola, and I’m here to report on the status of the MK 45 target-detection-device engineering program.”
The admiral was thunderstruck. He swiveled around in his chair to face the audience. “Good God!” he shouted. “What the hell is the world coming to that Motorola would send a broad to work on my ordnance?” The room exploded in laughter. When the noise died down, Webb was ready. “Sir, if you find that I’m not competent, I will resign,” she said. “But I’d like you to turn around and give me a chance.” Webb held that job for eight years.
In her next assignment, Webb had to prove herself all over again. Robert L. Growney, 57, now Motorola’s president and chief operating officer, has a reputation for being the toughest boss in a company that’s filled with them. Growney’s direct reports had never included women before Webb was assigned to his staff in 1989 as director of Motorola’s international-paging business. “The first year we were together, he was saying, ‘What has Motorola done to me?’ ” Webb recalls with a laugh. Even today, Growney and Webb are an odd couple. In August, at a Motorola analysts’ meeting, they stood together: Growney, with his silver hair, iron jaw, and glen-plaid double-breasted suit, talking with a conspiratorial smile to Webb, who, with her bright-blond hair, her stylish black-knit outfit, and glittering diamonds in her ears and at her wrists, would stand out anywhere — and who stands out even more at conservative Motorola.
But the partnership has worked. Webb managed a global portfolio of pager companies, using Motorola’s clout as a leading investor to tighten their operations and to generate more than $1 billion in revenue for Motorola over eight years. Growney became Webb’s mentor, tapping her for key jobs, including one running Motorola’s cell-phone business in the United States — a demanding and highly visible post. The stakes are even higher for Webb now, with Motorola’s future hinging on her success. “The wireless Internet looks as if it could be a boundary-less kind of business,” says Growney. “Janiece is able to work in an unbounded setting like that. Not everyone can. She’s able to find an interesting balance between being a visionary and reducing an idea to ways that it can make money for the corporation.”
Writing the Rules of Engagement
When Webb took over the personal-networks group in 1999, a key Motorola partnership with IBM was breaking down. The two companies had been looking for ways to collaborate on powerful new systems that would feed Web content over wireless networks, drawing on Motorola’s understanding of telecommunications and on IBM’s expertise in computers. But the partnership was going nowhere, largely because each company’s engineers believed that they had better technology. Mark F. Bregman, 43, former general manager of pervasive computing at IBM, was ready to scuttle the partnership. “We’re wasting our time flying back and forth every few months to hold these meetings,” he told Webb.
One reason Webb is so good at building relationships is that she’s willing to look at the world from the point of view of counterparts like Bregman. Over her career, in dozens of alliances and in hundreds of initiatives within Motorola, Webb has refined her ability to locate the key results that a partner needs in order to succeed, and then to tie those results to her own needs. “It’s not a coy negotiation,” she says. “You can’t afford to be coy anymore. People are looking you in the eye and asking themselves, Is she real?”
Bregman’s call meant that it was time “to restate the rules of engagement,” Webb says. “That means starting with what you must have in order to make the partnership a success.” For Bregman, it was essential that the system incorporate WebSphere, IBM’s platform for global e-business. Without that, Bregman couldn’t justify the effort or the expense of joining forces with Motorola to break into the market for wireless-Internet systems. “Fine,” Webb said. “That’s your core, and we’ll make sure we don’t enter your space.”
She explained that Motorola needed control of the communications elements — the gateways that people would use to connect to the wireless Web. “When it comes to the telecom piece, that is part of who we are. We won’t give that up.”
It took about 10 minutes for Webb and Bregman to arrive at a basic understanding of how they could work together. But there were still issues. The deadlock that had IBM and Motorola stalled was a debate over which operating system to use as the foundation for the software they would build to run over the wireless Internet. Webb’s team at Motorola favored Microsoft NT; Bregman’s team at IBM was committed to Unix. Webb saw a way to make the relationship even stronger. “I’ve come to the conclusion that we may need to build on Unix,” she told Bregman. “If that’s the case, I’ll make my team adopt it — or I’ll get a new team.”
Commitment that deep is rare, and it turned Bregman into a powerful ally. “Janiece is not just looking for what it takes to make her business and Motorola successful,” he says. “Hers is a more mature view of partnerships than what you typically find at a lot of American companies or even European companies.”
Those same skills enabled Webb to navigate a delicate pass with Philippe Kahn, one of the most colorful personalities (and one of the healthiest egos) in Silicon Valley. In 1998, Motorola acquired Starfish Software Inc., the maker of electronic address books and calendars that Kahn founded and ran as CEO; in the process, Kahn became one of the largest individual shareholders in Motorola. Kahn was intrigued by the potential of wireless technology and turned his entrepreneurial talents to developing some far-out applications for wireless networks. When Webb took over the personal-networks group, she became Kahn’s liaison at Motorola.
One day, Kahn went into Webb’s office with a prototype that he had built for a wireless digital camera that snapped onto a cell-phone and that transmitted pictures the instant they were taken. Webb was captivated. The wireless digital camera that Kahn was proffering was just the kind of killer app that Webb needed in order to establish Motorola as a player in the wireless-Web market. “It’s unbelievably cool,” she told Kahn. “But we have stuff at Motorola Labs that can sort of do that.” Kahn argued against moving the project inside Motorola, where he was afraid it would stagnate. “The people you need to work on a visionary venture like this are probably not the kind of guys who work inside a large company like Motorola,” he told Webb. “You need a complete end-to-end solution that’s commercial, not just a science project.”
They went back and forth for a couple of weeks. “The discussions were painful and rough,” Kahn says. “Initially, she didn’t accept anything. I could tell Janiece was looking, talking to a lot of people in the company and asking them, ‘What do you know about this stuff?’ ” But the technology inside Motorola wasn’t as far along as Kahn’s, and Webb desperately wanted a wireless digital camera that she could push into the market rapidly.
Kahn got what he wanted: the freedom to pursue his project with his own team of engineers, backed by an investment of $20 million from Motorola. But Webb’s initial resistance was more than just an exercise. The sparring sessions gave Kahn deeper respect for Webb’s judgment, and they provided Webb with the due diligence that she needed to throw all of her energy into championing a risky new product. Now she’s racing to introduce the wireless digital camera by early next year. “Once Janiece got it, she turned into an enthusiastic, feisty bulldog,” Kahn says. “It became her vision, her mission, and the next step in wireless technology: instant visual communication.”
The true test of Webb’s skill in building strong, resilient relationships will occur within Motorola itself. Competition and infighting among business units has gotten so bad in the past that some analysts blamed Motorola’s financial woes on its lack of cohesiveness. The new corporate slogan, “One Motorola,” gets a lot of lip service. But it’s up to Webb to prove whether the company can really pull together and deliver an integrated wireless-Web system or whether that slogan is just rhetoric. “I’m trying to make the personal-networks group ebb and flow into other parts of Motorola like an amoeba, so that I don’t know where their people end and mine start,” she says. “It’s not instinctual in a high-testosterone culture. But I’ve never valued my worth in terms of how big my kingdom is. I’ve valued it based on the impact that I’m having.”
The Future Is Now
The conference room of the Westin O’Hare is filling up fast with Wall Street analysts and institutional investors. More than 300 financial types file in and take their seats, along with Motorola’s board of directors and 100 or so senior managers. They’re here to listen to the company’s top executives provide an annual briefing on Motorola’s results and prospects.
Janiece Webb is the only woman to make a presentation, in a group of executives that includes Galvin, Growney, Webb’s immediate boss Merle Gilmore, and a half-dozen others. By now, she’s used to being the only woman in such rarefied settings. Still, it’s a big deal — for the company and for her. The day before, she received an urgent call from Gilmore, who told her that she would be briefing the analysts on Motorola’s wireless-Web strategy. She worked until 9 PM on the presentation, which had to be carefully scripted since the analysts scrutinize every statement made by executives.
If she’s nervous now, it hardly shows. She’s measured and calm when she takes the stage, and her presentation goes without a hitch. Compared with facing down that admiral, standing in front of analysts isn’t all that intimidating. When the presentations are over, and the executives take questions from the floor, one of the investors, a woman, stands up. “I’d like to congratulate you that Janiece should not only be seen this year but heard,” she says. Lo and behold, Motorola’s changing. And Janiece Webb is right where you would expect to find her — in the middle of it.
Paul C. Judge (email@example.com) is a Fast Company senior editor. Contact Janiece Webb by email (janiece.Webb@motorola.com).
Sidebar: What’s Fast
In a remarkable 28-year career at Motorola Inc. — a journey from an assembly-line post to a top executive position at the core of the company’s Internet strategy — Janiece Webb has made her mark by making change. Here are some of the lessons that she’s learned along the way.
Nobody wins unless everybody wins. Change requires partners, both inside and outside the company. But it’s unrealistic to expect partners to work on your behalf unless you’ve demonstrated how your work benefits them. “The person you’re dealing with has to know that you have integrity,” Webb says, “and that you care a lot about them and their issues.”
Results start with relationships. Webb is a master at relationships: brokering them, managing them, surviving them, and striking them in such a way that the benefits of such relationships are evident to all sides. “I got stood in the corner my first day of school, when I was six years old, for trying to sit between two kids who didn’t like each other,” she jokes. “It messed up the teacher’s seating arrangement.”
Nice guys (and gals) finish first. Changing how a company competes, and how its people work, generates lots of stress and anxiety. The way to help people face those necessary pressures, Webb believes, is to avoid adding to them. Webb is “not afraid to break glass,” says leadership guru Noel Tichy. “But she’s got a nice style, so she doesn’t do it in a personally challenging way.”