One of Carl’s first tasks in 1998 was to steady the Cerent ship, after the drama of the mid-year Fiberlane splinter, and instill a “can do” culture. Mary’s job was to achieve a shift in GM’s culture, a task that is much harder than Carl’s, since Mary does not have a clean slate on which to leave her mark. She has to deal with prevailing attitudes and a long history of “this is how we do things.”
Carl remains a believer in establishing culture, creating the strategy, and then hiring the right talent so that execution becomes possible. He noted in 2013, “We want the employees talking about the strategy, what are we doing, what does the market look like, how are we going to get there, then back to the strategy, what are we doing, over and over and over.”
The execution process is an iterative cycle of trial and error that leads to success in the marketplace. At Cerent during 1999, Carl recalls, “There was not one meeting in the atrium when we did not talk about the strategy. Once people understand that, they’re off and running.”
Carl addresses the culture aspect of leadership, “To an outsider a startup looks chaotic, because outsiders key off command and control structures, they key off positional authority markers like offices or an executive’s parking spot. To an outsider, a startup looks like a recently disturbed anthill.”
He continues, “If you go hiking one day and kick over an anthill and look closely, you’ll go ‘Holy shit, that’s pretty chaotic.’ You come back down the hill an hour later and the whole anthill is rebuilt. Maybe it’s not so chaotic. Maybe it’s just functioning in a way that you don’t understand.”
“At the end of the day, the ants know,” Carl summarizes, “Studies show that social insects spend thirty percent of their time rubbing antennas to communicate. You’ve got to communicate the structure; you’ve got to make sure people see the common purpose. And then they can start to figure out with the person they report to what their purpose is that aligns with the company’s purpose.”
Carl likes to share the big picture and he did that effectively at Cerent. Everyone knew their role and they did it well. He asks, “Do I really need to boil down all these tasks for you so you can boil them down to your managers and so on or can we just get everybody in the atrium and talk about where we’re going?”
He is leading the witness again. Of course, the answer is, “No, let’s just get on with it. We know what we need to do. So let’s just do it.”
This is true for many startups.
Carl raises a cautionary flag, of course, as he often does to make sure both sides of an issue are dissected. He continues, “Does this lack of command and control work for a company with 40,000 employees? I don’t know. It works into the thousands of employees, I’ve done it.”
Mary Barra will discover the answer to this question, with almost 80,000 GM employees working for her in the U.S. She is walking the balance beam at GM, trying to change the culture without condemning the organization that sustained her for years. When asked by TIME about culture in October 2014, Mary said, “What is it? It’s how we behave. It’s the stories we tell about the company.”
Mary is getting out of her corporate digs too. A 35-year GM veteran who works at a production facility said that he “has never heard of a GM CEO doing this kind of ‘in the weeds’ plant visit – which . . . is a revealing glimpse into attitudes about [GM’s] management.”
Like Carl, who believes the CEO is an editor, “Sometimes you have to be down in the weeds where it is okay to test the soil and probe the roots of decisions,” Terry Brown, Cerent’s vice-president of sales, marketing, and customer service observes, “. . . sometimes when issues arise, not only do you have to be down there in the weeds, but you also have to stay down there.” This is where Carl’s relentless focus paid dividends. He held daily afternoon ‘454’ product meetings with the hardware and software engineering teams to review progress and make sure no one was going down an unproductive path. Terry adds, “That is a good way to describe how Carl operated. Keeping it as a management-by-walking-around, keeping it open, enhancing the communication.”
Mary has spent a lot of time in the weeds too, from sorting out the deadly ignition-switch problem to regaining market share in higher margin truck sales; from retooling the automaker’s product line to ensuring her employees are accountable for their actions.
Carl kept it simple at Cerent and Mary is trying to cut through the veils of complexity at GM. Carl no doubt empathizes with Mary’s sentiment, “I just want to be part of the team that helped make GM the company I know it can be.”
What better legacy is there for any CEO?
 October 6, 2014 article in TIME, pp. 33–38
 The Upstart Startup: How Cerent Transformed Cisco, R.K. Koslowsky, 2014, various extracts.