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Lessons in Leadership: How John Chen Rescued BlackBerry

“BlackBerry was just days away from bankruptcy and at that point, John Chen stepped in to lead the company,” recalls former Bank of America CIO and current board member of Ally, NPower and Vectra AI, David Reilly. A long-time BlackBerry customer and friend of the company’s executive chairman and CEO, Reilly made the remarks prior to presenting Chen with a Leadership Excellence Award at the recent BlackBerry Summit event in New York.  

“John saw the company differently; he saw BlackBerry as a software company, in a world increasingly becoming software-defined,” Reilly recounts. “His vision for the company, which he has realized during his first 10 years of leadership, has changed it.”

Reilly made a surprise appearance at the BlackBerry event to honor Chen for his decade of work devoted to rescuing and re-inventing the former phone maker.

“It’s no underestimation to say, if it were not for John, BlackBerry would not be here — and we would not be in this room today,” Reilly told the audience of executives.

John Chen Shares a Lifetime of Leadership Insights

Chen’s achievements in bringing BlackBerry back from the brink were also celebrated this week in the Inc. Magazine article, “How John Chen Rescued BlackBerry,”  by Ranjay Gulati, who serves as the Paul R. Lawrence Professor for the prestigious Harvard Business School. The article is based on an extended interview with Chen recorded for the Deep Purpose leadership podcast series, hosted by Gulati in his capacity as chair of Harvard’s Advanced Management Program.

In the podcast episode, titled Saving BlackBerry: CEO John Chen Explains How to Make the Hard Calls, the two discuss Chen’s previous turnaround success story from his days leading Sybase, and then focused on what kind of leadership was required to revive and refocus the once-ailing BlackBerry.

For one thing, Chen had to apply strict logic and business acumen to make hard choices. This often required setting sentiment aside and dealing head-on with the inevitable emotional repercussions that would result from those tough choices.

Of all the difficult business decisions he has been called upon to make in his long career, shifting BlackBerry to a software-only model proved the most challenging. “The emotion of having the hardware — the phone business — die on my watch was the hardest,” Chen admits. “I also know the emotion of our engineers and our employees. To us, you know, this is more than just a product. It's a way of life. So I knew a lot of employees would be devastated when I made that decision,” Chen recalls.

The executive and former Cal Tech-trained electrical engineer has never been one to shy away from adversity. In fact, his apparent penchant for insoluble problems and seemingly lost causes had much to do with his accepting the BlackBerry leadership role, despite the advice his colleagues in the executive ranks, who unanimously counseled him to refuse the post.

“When you finally overcome the emotion side, you know this is the right thing to do. The right thing for the company and the right thing for our employees.”

And he says important decisions cannot linger too long. 

“There is always an element of what happens if you're wrong. Or you can second guess whether it's the perfect way to do it, whether you have all the answers. When you have enough knowledge around it, there is a time to act and there is a time to think — you don't mingle the two together too much.  

“Another way to say it was, and I always heard the same thing which I truly believe, is that making no decision is the bad decision.”

In all cases, as a leader, he holds to several core principles.

“I believe in a few things. I believe in transparency. I believe in fairness. Fairness is the hardest thing on Earth. Your people could handle a lot of things if they believe that you treat them fairly.”

Moving BlackBerry Forward

As he first articulated 10 years ago, Chen asserts that BlackBerry’s ultimate success lies in providing the industry with the security and connectivity building blocks to achieve the convergence of IT cybersecurity and the Internet of Things. “The key point is, we’ve been (pursuing) this strategy of IoT and cybersecurity as two really high growth markets that will come together, to achieve the maximum potential of the ‘smart world,’” Chen recently told investors.  

This bold thought leadership has since been validated by industry experts and will be realized through Project Imperium. Project Imperium will separate BlackBerry’s IoT and Cybersecurity business units into two independently operated entities, to extract greater value from the IoT for the company’s stakeholders by enabling each business to be independent and flexible in aligning to these major industry trends.

For more on John Chen’s BlackBerry turnaround story and his leadership insights, watch this excerpt from the Deep Purpose podcast below, or listen to it here.

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Steve Kovsky

About Steve Kovsky

Steve Kovsky is former Editorial Director at BlackBerry.