Another Management Malpractice

Whenever an individual or a company garners fame and fortune, there’s often intense interest in their processes and behaviors. The thinking is that there’s some sort of secret sauce or hidden wisdom in how they operate, so you, dear reader, can follow in their steps perhaps you can share in some of that success. Absent originality, emulation is the next best strategy.

Of course, if you stop and think about it, it’s a somewhat ridiculous premise. Wearing the same daily outfit—a la Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg or Elizabeth Holmes—is at best a micro-optimization that is more a biographical quirk than an executive success hack. Copying Google’s engineering practices or Netflix’s cultural norms without understanding how and why they’ve evolved to their current state is a recipe for disaster. YCombinator even calls out this cargo culting practice and advises its companies to avoid falling into the trap of blind emulation.

So right on time, on the heels of Nvidia’s recent success, comes reports of its CEO, Jensen Huang’s unusual management style:

  • 40+ direct reports,
  • No formal planning,
  • No status reports

The idea is to optimize for small teams and fluid information flow, particularly to and from the CEO himself. This lack of process and formal communication is meant to keep Jensen close to the work, bypassing the political and hierarchical filters common in big companies and with important people. Contrasting this to the sycophants surrounding Elon as he bought and started running Twitter, it’s easy to appreciate a chief executive who seeks direct feedback from all levels of the organization, and an environment that dispenses with traditional corporate power dynamics.

And Hacker News eats this stuff up. Engineering exceptionalism is a common attitude with that crowd, so the idea of fewer managers getting in the way of the technical work is an attractive proposition. There are fewer meetings, no need to manage upwards via status updates, and a direct line to the CEO; it sounds like an environment where the engineers are left alone to do whatever they think is worth working on.

There is one important piece of context: this is how a CEO runs his executive team, and markedly not how the entirety of Nvidia is run. In the interview where these details came out, Jensen even mentioned that he didn’t need to provide any career advice to his reports—because they’re all accomplished executives themselves. The amount of support and structure at the very highest parts of the C-suite is markedly different than other parts of the organization.

It sounds like Nvidia, at the top, is structured closer to that of a conglomerate, just without the discrete subsidiaries. Unsurprisingly, some of the biggest tech companies in the world are so massive that they end up with similar organizational structures. The most famous is probably Alphabet: the holding company that let YouTube and Waymo, along with a bunch of Google Labs alumni, break off from Google proper. Along the way, Alphabet’s formation spawned a bunch of new legal entities—and their associated CEOs.

Framed as a group of business-line CEOs or General Managers, the management style above makes more sense: it’s not radically different from how CEOs are managed by their boards, and dispenses away a lot of management best practices followed by those beneath them in the org chart. It’s a fun little style quirk that—more than its applicability to companies not named Nvidia and not led by people named Jensen Huang—is meant to build up the mythology of the chief executive, the modern tech-colored version of the Great Man Theory1.

  1. And as it just so happens, 2 recently published books pile onto this narrative: Elon Musk and Going Infinite.

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