Career Lessons From Twitter CEO's Self Demotion

By Donald Sears  |  Posted 2010-10-31

If you hadn't heard, earlier this month the CEO of Twitter, Evan Williams, made a brave move and promoted his COO to the CEO position, and moved himself to head of product strategy. The former COO, Dick Costolo, has been a CEO several times, and has had success, so it appeared to be a logical move. But the logic gets a little strange when you really think about how many company leaders are actually willing to take a step down and move over to something where their innate talent is better suited?

Here's what Willliams wrote of the changes in a blog post:

The challenges of growing an organization so quickly are numerous. Growing big is not success, in itself. Success to us means meeting our potential as a profitable company that can retain its culture and user focus while having a positive impact on the world. This is no small task. I frequently reflect on the type of focus that is required from everyone at Twitter to get us there.

This led to a realization as we launched the new Twitter. I am most satisfied while pushing product direction. Building things is my passion, and I've never been more excited or optimistic about what we have to build.

Williams seems to understand his own strengths and weaknesses in a company that has grown exponentially over the last 3 years. You have to wonder if other companies that have that kind of growth would be willing to relinquish the kind of control and influence a CEO can have, especially when you have a history of being self directed, as Williams does.

In the case of Twitter, Costolo is proving to be a leader that can get things done--a taskmaster with focus that can take a product and give it a path toward profitability. Williams, on the other hand, is setting himself up to keep his creativity flowing without getting caught in the inevitable household, mainstream direction the company is heading. You have to imagine they are planning on becoming even more household as they compete with Facebook and Google for advertising dollars and platforms for information sharing.

The one thing you have to wonder about, however, is whether Williams will be able to take more pointed direction from Costolo or any other leaders of Twitter given his publicly stated nature for independence, for doing things on his own and for generally rejecting working for others. He recently told The New York Times in an article about the self-demotion and his childhood:

I had a fierce desire to create things, to be independent and prove myself, which caused me to reject authority, but never in a sort of rebellious way... It was more like, 'I'm going to show you by doing it all myself.'

Williams also described Twitter as a very tall 6th grader with a "lack of maturity despite size and perception of outsiders." That kind of candidness would be difficult to hear from a Larry Ellison of Oracle or a Sam Palmisano of IBM, but it makes a whole lot of sense for Twitter who is going through important and evidently very self aware times.

On the other hand, does the demotion allow Williams to allow his penchant for creating products and directing product strategy open him up for other companies and start ups? Does his demotion signal a move to something else? From what I've read on Williams, he is an idea man and someone who moves from one big idea to the next seamlessly. Not being at the helm might allow him to make a move outside of Twitter.

At the very least, Williams understands he may not be the right fit to move this company to the next level on the maturity scale, and his courage to publicly admit that is an important trait more technology and company leaders could use to better their organizations. It's much less about stepping down or aside than it is about realigning talents where they are needed at the time they are needed.

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