[Land O’Spin] What Can Genentech’s Art Levinson Tell “Britain’s Got Talent” Susan Boyle?

I’m quite taken with the whole Susan Boyle craze though I’m not entirely sure why. I think what continues to intrigues me is how utterly people can be taken by what people should look or act like, or as in Boyle’s case, by packaging – and how often they’re looking for the 80% stereotype and miss the 20% surprise. It’s unclear whether Boyle has talent or any staying power but what is clear is that she’s certainly hit a cord with people. I think her emergence, however long, is great – and with over 40,000,000 YouTube page views [Updated 4/23: 75,000,000 YouTube views], it’s clear that many people are keenly interested in her.

One of the things about people who are memorable – whether they are Boyle, Barack, or Genentech’s soon-to-be former CEO Art Levinson – is that they deliver the unexpected. Sometimes that astonishment (think of Obama’s statement about not looking like the former US presidents) is in the packaging – sometimes it’s in the performance (Boyle). Sometimes it’s both (Levinson).

What often makes great leaders and business managers possible is that they are “right time, right place, and right skills” for that moment, and at their impactful best when they have the fortune of being able to signal by appearance or manner that change is imminent. If they can get traction – rather than being derailed early – great things are possible. Great leaders are rarely like their predecessors because conditions are seldom static.

In the case of Lou Gerstner, who was brought in to save IBM in the 1990’s, it was his passion, fire and candor that he applied to an organization that had been cool, analytical, and disengaged while it lurched toward business disaster. My favorite Gerstner line as he turned off somebody’s projector as they hit page 2 of yet another overly packaged PowerPoint presentation is “Let’s just talk about your business.” In effect it was Gerstner’s signal that the days of slickly packaged nonsense were over.

Kirk Raab was Art Levinson’s predecessor as Genentech CEO. While I don’t know either man, I can guess at the contrasts. Raab came from established health services company Abbott, where he came up through the marketing and sales route. Likely polished and presentable in a corporate way, Raab has also been also described as confrontational and adversarial, particularly when it came to relations with federal regulators .

Levinson had been recruited out of UCSF to Genentech and had come up the scientist route where he eventually headed the research function at Genentech. The contrast between Raab, who came from corporate America and Levinson with his PhD scientist background must have been striking. With Raab as the mold for what a CEO should look like and act, Levinson must have seemed like a most unlikely CEO.

It was probably Levinson’s style contrast with Raab, though, that enabled him to signal a change in the way Genentech would be run when named to the CEO role. And true to the trail he had left managing the research function, Levinson continued to be a manager who attracted and retained the best and brightest (Sue Desmond-Hellman as but one example) – this time across the full company gamut at Genentech.

The challenge for a “change agent” – someone who expects and intends to alter the ways or composition of an organization – is to be able to make those changes surely and swiftly, before inertia and opposition (sometimes marketed as a preference for the old ways) grabs hold. One, though not the only reason, new CEO’s clean house with their direct reports, is to make sure the old guard doesn’t sabotage the new change efforts.

As a new fad, Boyle, like some change efforts, faces a dynamic well understood and not unlike the new shiny face (think Art Levinson in the early 1990’s) in a political corporate setting: Build ‘Em Up, Knock ‘Em Down, NEXT!

If the change you bring can gain hold, the results can amazing as in Gerstner’s “save” of IBM, or Levinson’s work with Genentech.

And what can Levinson tell Boyle?

Like Levinson, Boyle is self-effacing . She does not have even begin to have a glimmer of the success that Levinson accomplished during his 14 year run – as well as the respect which has him winning most admired CEO awards from the employees of Genentech.

But I suspect that Levinson would crib a line from Steve Martin – which is easily applied to Art, and suggest, “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”

Stay tuned.

Land O’Spin is an occasional set of writings focused on best practices in coaching and assessment: how do take what you observe, know what it means, and draw conclusions about what outcomes will occur in the future.