Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal even suggested that Noto has emerged as a front-runner to replace Costolo, describing Noto – a former tech banker at Goldman Sachs and a former CFO of the National Football League – as a “take-charge” executive, based on interviews with his supporters at the company.
But promoting Noto to the top spot may not be such a great idea — not based on the experience of longtime executive recruiter Jon Holman, who says CFOs tend to make lousy CEOs. In fact, of the hundreds of C-level executives that Holman has placed over the last 30-plus years, he says he has “never” placed a CFO as a CEO – “nor would I recommend it to someone.”
Holman “doesn’t know Noto at all,” he is quick to say. He adds that Noto could become the “second or third guy in history who has gone from CFO to CEO and been successful.” But he’s highly skeptical of the model for a variety of reasons.
First, it’s likely that until April — when Noto was also put in charge of Twitter’s floundering marketing department — Noto has never managed anything near the roughly 4,000 employees that Twitter has around the world.
“At Goldman, Noto was an analyst, meaning he was a domain expert who knows a huge amount about various industries,” observes Holman. “But he was never managing large numbers of people, and the people he was managing [in the several years that Noto spent as co-head of the investment bank’s technology, media and telecommunications group] were analysts – not people in marketing, sales, finance, engineering . . .” notes Holman.
More, says Holman, while CFOs generally sound like they know everything, they do not. “Because CFOs sit in on board meetings along with the CEO, they speak as if they understand the business.They understand the financials of the business. They know that, ‘We’re spending 33 percent of revenue on sales and marketing.’ But they’ve never run a sales organization, and their job has never been on the line if there’s a revenue shortfall,” he notes.
Not last, CFOs tend to reign in spending and to generally take the most conservative path possible, notes Holman. That’s probably not ideal at Twitter, which has shied away from making dramatic changes to its platform — and been soundly criticized for it. “Most CEOs are outer directed, while CFOs are inner directed,” says Holman. Using a baseball analogy, he observes that “Most CEO types want to swing for the fences; CFOs want players to hit singles.”
That’s not to say Twitter should rule out Noto completely, suggests Holman. In fact, he could make sense as CEO in the very short term.
Among other reasons why a company like Twitter might bring in a CFO is if “you have investors who think the sky is falling, or, in this case, that it’s a big problem that Twitter isn’t converting tweets to revenue. CFOs generally speak in appropriate adult-like tones and can [massage] investors and assure them that a company will get it all figured out.”
Another argument for promoting the CFO is when a company is just going to sell itself anyway, says Holman. In that case, “What you need is someone who understands how to sell a company, someone who will run a [sales] process, which Noto clearly knows how to do.”
A third reason a CFO like Noto could make sense right now is “if there’s a perception that what a company needs to do is big-time pruning: laying people off, getting expenses under control, those kinds of things that CFOs tend to be really good at.”
Of course, all of these scenarios would be a prelude to bringing in someone else, and Twitter already has an interim CEO lined up in co-founder Jack Dorsey. Could we see the equivalent of two interim CEOs at the company?
Twitter “can do whatever it wants,” says Holman. “Is it a clever strategy? Probably not.”
Over the weekend, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo finally did something that millions of Twitter users have done before him: He tweeted a comment that’s attracting unwanted attention.
The tweet was prompted by a New York Times report that Twitter has just one woman among its top officials. The story includes comments from academic Vivek Wadwha, who ascribed Twitter’s gender imbalance to “elite arrogance” and the “same male chauvinistic thinking” that permeates Silicon Valley. Costolo took to Twitter Friday night to call Wadwha the “Carrot Top of academic sources.”
@rich1 Vivek Wadhwa is the Carrot Top of academic sources.
— dick costolo (@dickc) October 5, 2013
Coming from anyone else, the tweet might have been mildly amusing if a bit mean-spirited — typical Twitter fare, in short. Coming from Costolo, it was a surprising misstep. Twitter is in its quiet period. Within weeks, it will be a public company. So why not just keep quiet until then?
In shooting the messenger and not addressing the message itself, Costolo also inadvertently helped feed people’s worst perceptions of Twitter, including that it’s not always a friendly place to hang out. As Josh Constine observed in a recent TechCrunch piece, many users already avoid or abandon Twitter because of its competitive undertones and the pressure they feel to be “thought leaders.”
Half a day after Costolo published his tweet, one such thought leader, the blogger-entrepreneur Anil Dash, decided to challenge him on it. Tweeting to his 477,525 followers, Dash said that he was “sorely disappointed to see @dickc respond defensively to criticisms of industry sexism. Why not just lead, as Twitter does on free speech?”
Sorely disappointed to see @dickc respond defensively to criticisms of industry sexism. Why not just lead, as Twitter does on free speech?
— Anil Dash (@anildash) October 5, 2013
After a few defensive exchanges with Dash and others on the topic, Costolo suggested that he’s very mindful of the gender issue at Twitter, tweeting: “I *think* I have an acute understanding of the topic & host of related issues. Of course, proof is in deeds.” (In a display of deference to Costolo that has also become de rigueur among Twitter’s most astute users, Dash “favorited” each of Costolo’s responses before responding to them.)
@anildash huh??? I was making fun of his propensity for silly hyperbole. I didn’t say anything about the topic or even reference it!
— dick costolo (@dickc) October 5, 2013
Whether there will be lingering damage from Costolo’s tweet remains to be seen. Plenty of people have lost their jobs over less, but Twitter doesn’t seem inclined to ditch its star CEO any time soon.
As for Carrot Top, a comic long known for his red hair and his use of props, no one yet knows how he feels about being dragged into the conversation. His publicity team didn’t respond to questions sent to them yesterday.
It’s worth noting that Costolo himself once tried to be a stand-up comic, an effort that led to zero job offers, as he shared during an on-stage interview in May. “It was one part of [my career] strategy,” he’d said, as the crowd erupted with laughter.
Sign up for our morning missive, StrictlyVC, featuring all the venture-related news you need to start you day.