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How this CEO avoided the glass cliff and turned around an “uninvestable” company

For the past three years, Lisa Su has been rebuilding AMD’s processor business into a powerhouse.

How this CEO avoided the glass cliff and turned around an “uninvestable” company
[Photo: courtesy of AMD]

Before Lisa Su became AMD’s (Advanced Micro Devices) first female CEO, before she led the company to 25% revenue growth to $5.33 billion in 2017 (marking its first full year of profitability), the nearly 50-year-old tech company best known for manufacturing microprocessors had hit a significant rough patch.

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“We were losing money like crazy”

Su, who holds a PhD in electrical engineering from MIT, came to AMD from IBM in January 2012 as senior vice president and general manager of the company’s global business units.

That year, AMD lost over $1 billion, which wiped out its previous two years profits. By the end of that year, AMD had cut 15% of its workforce, prompting one analyst to pronounce the company “uninvestable.” As it continued to burn through cash, competitors like Intel, Qualcomm, and Nvidia gobbled up its market share.

Undaunted by the challenge, Su began to slowly change the game first as SVP, then COO, and ultimately taking the helm as CEO from Rory Read in 2014. The scenario could have unfolded with Su shattering that glass ceiling, only to get the boot over the glass cliff, like other female CEOs who try to salvage a sinking ship.

Su, a self-professed pragmatist, focused on what she knows how to do best: solve problems. “I’ll figure out how to bring people together or experiment to narrow down to get an answer,” she says.

“When I first took over, there was a desire from HR and the communications team to put together a mission, vision, and value statement,” she recalls, “and I was thinking at the time we are losing money like crazy.” Su says to do that would have taken six months that the company couldn’t afford to spend. So instead, she drafted a memo delivered at her first all-hands meeting that outlined three objectives: “To build great products, deepen customer relationships, and simplify everything we do.”

Her memo also acknowledged that the staff would be asking what would change in order to meet these priorities. In turn, Su insisted that the strategy set in motion before she took over would remain, and the focus would be on those three points.

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“That seems to have really resonated,” Su muses, recalling that she saw those priorities recorded in a photo of one of the office whiteboards six or nine months later. The simplicity of the message stuck more than if she’d written a 10-point value statement, Su contends.

Becoming a better leader

But Su admits she wasn’t always this accomplished at setting a vision and motivating teams, much less a global workforce of around 10,000 people. At IBM, the first engineering group she managed was a diverse team of 10 people when she was in her late 20s. “My personal motivation was purely around the project,” she remembers. At the time, Su’s boss asked her how it was going and if she was talking to her people. “I thought that was such a strange question,” confesses Su. She says she never expected anyone to talk to her about anything but the work to be done, and assumed everyone should be treated that way. It was a good management lesson, she says, to understand that she had to talk to her team and learn what made them tick.

Su also credits IBM’s management training programs as a key factor in getting her to be a better leader, not just of projects, but of people. But she also gives a nod to her mother, an entrepreneur who made the decision to start a business when Su and her brother were still in junior high school. Watching the decision making that went into taking a bootstrapped startup importing baskets from their native Taiwan and building it into a multimillion-dollar business that she continues to run today was an education in passion and perseverance.

These lessons permeate Su’s management style as she has gone from managing smaller teams and figuring out how individuals think in order to motivate them to oversee a large, global organization. Over the years, she says, one thing keeps coming back. “Clarity of communication is important,” she maintains, in order to get everyone aligned to a goal.

That’s why she keeps an open-door policy, although she’s quick to point out that with a workforce in multiple countries that is more like an open IM. “I am sometimes surprised who will IM me,” she says, noting that it is not just the executives who message her freely. “I can’t say I’m 100% responsive, but 80% [of the time] I will respond or ask one of my staff to respond.” Su insists she’s gotten good feedback this way, especially since things tend to get filtered out at large organizations. Those at lower levels and from outside the company have offered her new insight into the way things are working, or not.

“One of the most important things for a CEO is not to get insulated,” says Su. That’s why you’ll find her talking to her staff, seeing customers, and even frequently reading what’s said about AMD’s products on Reddit and other forums.

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And while she’s convinced AMD’s current success is product driven, Su also concedes that its people are largely responsible for making those products excel. The Austin-based company has poached engineers from the likes of Silicon Valley’s A-list, in part through word of mouth. Su says AMD’s culture of staying true to what they are trying to achieve is very important for recruiting top talent. “We are significantly smaller [than our competitors], so we are fighting a big fight,” she says. “So if you are attracted to a very stable, easygoing job, this is not that.” Su says AMD attracts people who “want to take a risk, do something very special in the industry, and fight the battle with less resources and more freedom.” She believes it, and that’s what she consistently relays to her staff. “You are going to learn a ton and make a big impact,” she adds,” because it is a very competitive environment, and we are trying to operate at the highest level of tech.”

Su believes AMD’s culture is one of learning. Motivating her people to do better each quarter is what she accomplishes through her 5% rule. “I use that figuratively,” she points out, because 50% sounds like asking for the impossible. The incremental, “just a little better the next time,” has taken AMD from the brink back to profitability. This year, the company is on track to grow into PC and datacenter markets as well as high-end graphics and games. Su says simply, “I’ve been pleased to have that [5% better] become ingrained.”

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About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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