Leadership Lessons: ARM's honorary chairman

Every month Hashi Syedain talks to a business leader about their personal management issues.

by World Business
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013


Robin Saxby was already a battle-scarred engineering manager when he was hired to head up ARM in 1990. A start-up spun off by Acorn and Apple to design microprocessors for a new generation of portable electronic devices, ARM rapidly grew into the world leader in its field. Some 80% of mobile phones, for example, are powered by ARM chips. In 2002, Saxby was knighted for services to IT. Last year he stepped down from active service at ARM to become president of the Institution of Engineering and Technology.

- What does being emeritus chairman of ARM mean?

I copied the role from Gordon Moore, founder of Intel. It's an honorary title that means I'm not on the board any more, but I help whenever I can. I also get invited to the Christmas party.

- Was it hard stepping down from ARM?

I don't think that business ever satisfies the soul. We need money to eat and live, but once you've paid off the mortgage and become financially independent you have the opportunity to do whatever you want. If you've created one world-class business, why do you want to create another? Doing something different becomes more exciting.

- What advice do you give to people starting out?

Be prepared to make mistakes. In performance appraisals at ARM, we'd always ask: "What mistakes have you made?" If someone says they haven't made any, presumably they've been doing nothing all year.

- Do you still make mistakes?

Yes. One of the areas that is always hard is decisions to do with people. Human beings are political and not always logical, and people issues are so important in the success of a business.

- What's the last 'people mistake' you made?

It's not unusual within an organisation to have two people in competition with each other in one part of the organisation. As chief executive, you have to make the decision about whom to back. The last time I was faced with that situation a few years ago, I shot the wrong man. I'm still good friends with him and it would have been worse to have made no decision at all. But I made the wrong call. You are not always right about your judgment and you can't always be.

- How do you reduce the risk of getting it wrong?

When hiring people, try them out if you can. We sponsor students for graduate recruitment intake, so we get to know them. You've also got to be fair in your dealings with people, because then you don't need to feel bad about a mistake. Something else I always do when I'm interviewing is ask the receptionist afterwards what the candidate was like on arrival. Were they pleasant or rude? Usually, it confirms my view of the person.

- Do you remember any lessons from training courses?

I still remember my early sales and marketing training - the SPIN model for thinking about sales: Situation, Problem, Implied need, Need-payoff. It's all about asking different types of questions, so you understand the needs of the customer. I learned that in the 1970s and it still resonates today.

You've said in the past that a successful partnership needs pain. Tell us more.

If you're not feeling some pain, you're probably drifting in parallel with your partners. You enter a partnership when both companies want something. As you go forward, what you want from each other can change. It's a territory battle. ARM has 184 semi-conductor partners and the value is as much in the community as in the individual partnerships.

- How much is down to the person at the top?

It's the quality of the team that matters. You need at least two pessimists in every team. Normally, the finance person is a good candidate for pessimism. So is the head of technology. You need people to spell out just how difficult the challenges are. It stops the others getting carried away.

- You used to say you wanted ARM to be a household name, but that didn't happen.

We're a well-known name within the industry. All hi-tech companies know us, so we're a global brand in our space. But there was a change of vision from the mid-1990s away from the desire for consumer recognition. It would have meant spending a lot of money on marketing and it was clear that having consumer brand awareness wasn't terribly important to us.

- How do you avoid hubris when you are so successful?

You must have people who will tell you the truth.

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