Novell CEO Aims To Remake Company Culture In 2002

Jack Messman says company too insular

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With a cigar jutting from his navy jacket breast pocket, Novell CEO Jack Messman worked the crowd Monday night at his company's annual partner conference like a proud father at his daughter's wedding.

Genuinely glad to meet partners at hand here in La Quinta, Calif., where Novell executives will introduce on Tuesday the new initiatives that comprise PartnerNet 2002, Messman moved through an opening night crowd of business partners with relative ease, relying on no handlers to block guests from extending a hand or asking tough questions. More than a few in the crowd of solution providers and vendors remarked how accessible the CEO seemed a night before his company was slated to explain program changes that officially debuted Monday.

Confident but not cocky, Messman is well aware that his pragmatic, straight-forward approach is winning fans more accustomed to a different, more aloof Novell. The approach, Messman concedes, is different than that generally taken by his predecessor, Eric Schmidt, who did not participate in Novell's most recent partner summits.

By contrast, Messman says he wouldn't miss this annual gathering for the world.

"How could I?" wonders the once and again Novell executive who rejoined the company after it merged with Cambridge Technology Partners. "When I look at the audience assembled here, I see the bulk of my revenue."

As he preps to kick off the annual summit--he says he's spent the better part of the last five days honing his team's presentations, including both Saturday and Sunday--he's now getting a better sense of what the company needs to be successful in the market. In particular, he says, he needs to make Novell a more responsive business partner that is much easier to engage. To that end, he adds, his No. 1 goal for 2002 is to change Novell's company culture. When pressed, he says that the objective is more than just talk. For example, he notes, no single plan or initiative, will get a green light in his administration without buy-in from the constituency it is intended to serve.

"People were bringing plans to me for approval without first running them past the people they were intended to serve," he says. "That's when I began to appreciate how insular some of our ways were."

In a nutshell, Messman is convinced that the company was run too autocratically for too long. It probably blocked great ideas from Novell's engineering departments from reaching their true potential, and it likely put distance between to company and its customers. As a result, he says he wants to empower people closer to customers and partners alike, especially those in the field located far from the company's headquarters. It's just one reason why he employs a model that has five different presidents reporting to him.

"It's a harder way to run a business," he says of his more decentralized approach. "But it's what we have to do to get close to customers."

Recognizing that such an approach tends to dilute corporate plans and agendas, he says he expects his lieutenants and their direct reports to develop fluency in all parts of their business.

"Just because someone is one department over here doesn't mean they shouldn't be able to articulate what's going on elsewhere in the company," he says.

It's a big reason why he, himself, has spent five days on partnering messaging; he wants to make sure he's up to speed with all of the relevant issues surrounding partners, more than 200 of whom are on hand for this week's event. So far, they are largely giving Messman high marks for his level of engagement.

Messman, who in his most recent call with financial analysts singled out his company's win in the VARBusiness 2001 Annual Report Card survey, says he knows partners have a warm spot in their hearts for Novell that won't burn forever without refueling. With more new products out than at anytime in the past five years, he says his company is ideally poised to reclaim its lost momentum. But headway will be hard to come by without a new attitude and culture.

Surprisingly, that may not be as difficult to pull off as some think. Even though many Novell employees, especially those that work in and around the company's central Utah headquarters, have been with the company more than a decade, they are surprisingly eager to try a new approach. Tired of stock options that never rise above the waterline and frustrated by past management teams that often seemed inattentive to their needs, Novell employees say they are onboard with Messman's plans to remake the company, even if it has meant painful consolidation and reorganization.

"Jack Messman has already shown himself to be fully engaged with what we are trying to accomplish," says Ladd Timpson, worldwide director of channel marketing.

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