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Close Calls

Would you quit if your company lied to you? Would you sell the company you founded for stability? Doing the ‘right’ thing is often subjective. Meet five people who share tough career choices they made – and how they made them.

Richard “Skip” LeFauve
President of General Motors University
LeFauve’s Choice: What’s My Legacy?

The Dilemma
As president of General Motors’s Saturn Corp., Richard “Skip” LeFauve had worked for more than 10 years to overturn much of the conventional wisdom in his industry: Unions and management can’t work together; American automakers can’t compete with the Japanese; company decisions can’t be made by consensus. In late 1996, General Motors suggested that he leave Saturn to head up a new venture – GM University. LeFauve resisted the move.

The Deliberation
Helping to create Saturn – from the plant’s team-driven environment to the brand’s funky, home-style ads – was a labor of love for LeFauve. But the offer of the university post triggered new reflection in LeFauve. Was there more to life than Saturn? “I got to talking to myself and thinking, ‘You’re not going to live forever. What’s more, they’re not going to put up with you forever. So, what if you created something that would last forever?’ ” LeFauve says. “If I really put a solid foundation under the university, it would be there long after I’m gone.”

The Decision
The fourth time GM offered him the job, LeFauve accepted. Since March 1997, he’s applied the lessons he learned at Saturn to build one of the world’s most ambitious virtual universities. Leaders within GM are the teachers; union members, managers, and representatives from communities near GM plants are the students. LeFauve has no doubts about his choice. “I’ve had people come up to me, choked up about what the GM University experience has meant to them personally and professionally,” he says. “I’ve heard them use phrases like ‘life-changing event.’ “

Joy Carver
Founder, Carver & Associates
Carver’s Choice: A Question of Values

The Dilemma
When Joy Carver left her job as executive director of management development at Honeywell in 1991, she didn’t get more money or better benefits from her new employer. What she got was a promise that she would be allowed to take advantage of educational opportunities as they arose. That was incentive enough for her to accept a lateral move. Nine months after she relocated, she was invited to attend an elite two-week CEO retreat, all expenses paid. Her new company said no.

The Deliberation
When Carver called the associate who had extended the invitation, she shared her shock and disappointment. “If I could, I would leave the company today,” she said. “How much are your expenses?” asked the associate, who was a friend of hers. “I’ll bridge you.” The offer jolted Carver into thinking about her options. If she did leave, what would she want to do?

The Decision
Carver gave 30 days’ notice and went to the retreat in Colorado. Then she started her own consulting firm, Carver & Associates, which now does a thriving business offering team-building, leadership, and human-development programs to such companies as Citicorp and Coca-Cola. Even without her friend’s loan offer, Carver says she would have left her then-new employer. “It was not a big choice,” she says. “In my soul, I felt that I could no longer be with people who had broken such a big promise. I had to leave to do something that was more compatible with my values.”

Andy Bechtolsheim
Vice president of engineering, Cisco Systems
Bechtolsheim’s Choice: Fight or Sell?

The Dilemma
In 1995, Andy Bechtolsheim, one of the original engineering geniuses behind Sun Microsystems, left to start his own company – Granite Systems. Its product: Gigabit Ethernet switching, which promised to be a relatively cheap way for companies to increase the volume of information they could send across internal computer networks. One year later, Bechtolsheim noticed that what had been a wide-open market was already filling up with agile, well-financed startups as well as large, established competitors. Should he bank his company’s future on the new product (which wasn’t ready to ship) or sell Granite to a big player while it was still worth something?

The Deliberation
Granite had superior technology. It didn’t have time – time to establish sales channels or to expand its marketing “department” from one person to a real team. “The real question was whether there was a distinct-enough business opportunity – enough of one to base a new company on it?” Bechtolsheim says.

The Choice
In late 1996, Bechtolsheim sold Granite to Cisco Systems and became a vice president of engineering. He might have made a different choice 15 years ago. “Then you had stodgy, traditional companies, and it was easier to compete against them,” he says. “Now any new startup competes with startups from the ’70s and ’80s, including Intel and Microsoft. The window of opportunity created by ignorant or conservative companies has shrunk.” In the end, Bechtolsheim’s decision was strictly business. “I don’t claim much intelligence here,” Bechtolsheim says. “I looked at the opportunity and the market reality, and the choice was crystal clear.”

Casey Powell
Founder, Sequent Computer Systems, Inc.
Powell’s Choice: Stay or Go?

The Dilemma
After spending almost 20 years at Intel, Casey Powell considered himself a company patriot and CEO Andy Grove a tough but important mentor. In the early 1980s, Grove put Powell, then general manager for microprocessor operations, in charge of a marketing campaign against Motorola. Although Powell felt he had things under control, Grove was disappointed. At an executive committee meeting, Grove humiliated Powell in a diatribe that Powell says was reminiscent of his days as a first-year plebe at the Merchant Marine Academy. Powell was furious, both at the outburst and at the politics that he believed had fueled it. But was the incident worth quitting over?

The Deliberation
The last thing Powell wanted to do was make a decision that he’d regret later. He cooled off for a few months, assessing his options while focusing even harder on the marketing campaign. After filtering out his emotions, Powell realized his problems at Intel involved more than one bad meeting. “I was not in a winning situation,” he says. “I was giving a lot of myself in an area that didn’t seem to be appreciated, and I was being judged on several major programs that I knew would work but that others had doubts about.”

The Choice
Powell decided that starting his own company was the right decision. He left Intel and founded Sequent Computer Systems, a technology company that now has annual revenues of almost $800 million. Powell feels he made the choice for good motives – not for revenge. Shortly before leaving Intel, he received a memo from Grove congratulating him on the successful completion of the marketing project. “I felt exonerated,” Powell says. “I didn’t want to get even with him. I did want his approval.”

Chris Pizzurro
Title Director of Cool Stuff Technology, Turner Broadcasting Sales Inc.
Pizzurro’s Choice: Freedom or Security?

The Dilemma
It took Chris Pizzurro less than three years to turn his own multimedia marketing firm into Vision Media of NY Inc., a thriving company in which he had a 50% stake. Then he got a job offer from Turner Broadcasting Sales, one of his most lucrative clients.

The Deliberation
The offer was enough to get Pizzurro to reassess his business and its future. The company needed $120,000 for additional computer equipment and staff. To generate that sum, he’d have to mortgage his house. “People said to me, ‘You have shares in your own company. How could you possibly throw that away?’ ” Pizzurro says. But he was spending nights worrying about finding new clients and rarely got home until after his two young children were asleep. “I knew the business would pay off big – three or four years down the line,” Pizzurro says. “The question was, Did I really want to invest the time and risk?”

The Choice
Pizzuro took Turner’s offer and has led the company’s multimedia sales division for two years. He has no regrets. The decision wasn’t really about freedom or security, money or risk, he says. Trusting his emotions more than his business sense, Pizzurro realized that for him, spending time with his family was more important than any future stock payoff. His company was simply a vehicle for doing great creative work. At Turner, he has that opportunity – without the administrative hassle. “I never really wanted ‘freedom,’ ” Pizzurro says. “I just wanted to do quality work.”


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