Forged by Fire
January 21, 2006
Case categories include: Leadership
By Robert Sher
After a debilitating merger and the dot-com bubble burst, the outlook for Mattson looked dire. The founder of the 250 million dollar semiconductor equipment manufacturer stepped down, and the board reached into the ranks and found Dave Dutton, then COO and made him President and CEO. The plan worked, and out of the chaotic transition came a team known as the three C’s: CEO, COO, and CFO. Together they share the credit for leadership in the turnaround and subsequent growth of Mattson.
Games Have No Place
The founder’s style was big long meetings with dozens of participants. Quickly, Dave identified four top execs to form his top team. Within a few months, it became clear that one of them was playing games, and was dismissed. With the business under great pressure, there was neither time nor patience to tolerate anything less than complete candor and devotion to the business’s success. Jockeying for titles, position, or personal gain wasn’t tolerated, and should never be tolerated, even in the best of situations.
The three C’s were Dave Dutton as CEO, Ludger Viefhues as CFO, and Robert MacKnight as Chief Operating Officer. Ludger had been called out of retirement and joined Mattson as CFO just six months before the transition. Robert had been hired four months earlier as a division president. “We are not quitters,” said Mr. Viefhues. “While we were all surprised with how difficult the situation was, none of the three of us are afraid of hard work. It is our nature to stick to our commitments, and we did.” The quality of the top team was not limited to their determination. Ludger had been CEO of a billion dollar firm in his past, and Robert had founded startups and had high level executive positions in large firms. Dave said, “I sat back and marveled at the fact that these men were more experienced than I. The question was how to best harness and retain that experience and talent, and how I could add value.”
Tending the Relationships
Dave’s thinking was right on point. You don’t lead leaders by being the “boss.” Instead, he went to work on creating the environment where they could flourish. He focused on the soft side, and built a strong, trusting relationship between the three of them. He worked hard to reset the culture of the company. He created a management culture of collaboration, so that everyone would feel heard and respected. There was a pivotal kayaking trip demonstrating collaboration is the much dryer approach. Ludger became known for his high level perspectives on business issues. Robert drove in home runs operationally, in perfect alignment with his action orientation. Dave kept the team humming along, charged and cohesive.
If you like being the big cheese, then get used to being having a high “changeability” quotient. If you can change your approach to ideally suit different situations, then you’ll be running the show most of the time. As a COO, Dave had been a real driver, and not very collaborative at all. He would take charge and get it done. Yet as CEO, he saw that being a driver over two proven leaders (Robert and Ludger) would not have worked well. So instead, he became an architect of the company culture. After stabilizing and solidifying for four years, Mattson is now in a growth mode. Accordingly, Dave now is shepherding the organization’s transition as it pursues the new vision. In another example of exemplary changeability, Dave handed the title of President to Robert, but retained the CEO title as his role became completely strategic.
Can you call it luck?
Perhaps in an odd sort of way, it was lucky that these men were thrown into the fire – for out of it was forged a great team. The struggle to survive forced the hard choices, like quickly rejecting a team member that didn’t measure up. The common goal was so pressing that it absorbed any time or energy that might have been spent in a counterproductive manner. But I wouldn’t wish that luck on anyone. What I do recommend is that you apply the same disciplined decision making in your business at all times. If you really want to take your company forward, there is never the time or luxury of tolerating executive game playing, or poor performance.
If your team is top notch and fully committed, then work hard at cultivating close relationships and mutual trust. Mattson’s new president, Robert MacKnight described what it is like today to work with Dave and Ludger: “We now have enough time together to make ‘behind-the-back passes.’ We share a realistic understanding of each individual’s strengths and weaknesses and support each other unselfishly.”
Every team should strive for this level of teamwork at the top.
• A great top team is incredibly powerful. Tend to the relationships in that top team – so everyone can tend to the business.
• The ability of the CEO to change how they work and what they contribute in different situations is critical.
• Hard times force us to make hard decisions. Most CEOs would have healthier businesses if they made the hard choices even when they’re not forced to.
Robert Sher is principal of CEO to CEO, specializing in assisting CEOs and business leaders as they navigate critical passages. He is the author of The Feel of the Deal; How I Built a Business through Acquisitions. He may be reached at Robert@ceotoceo.biz.
Company and Case Facts:
Company: Mattson Technology, Inc. (MTSN)
Person: Dave Dutton, CEO
Alliance Member since: 2003
Business Founded: 1989
Annual Sales Volume: $253 million in 2004
Head Count: 625
Product: Semiconductor manufacturing equipment
Typical Customer: Semiconductor manufacturers
Written: January, 2006
Address: Mattson Technology, Inc., 47131 Bayside Parkway, Fremont, CA 94538