Nortel’s ongoing soap opera not a setback for customers

You can’t really expect a good-bye card when you quit a job after less than three months, though I’ve certainly signed my fair share of them. You can’t expect a gift, either, or even much of a farewell lunch. That’s because resigning in less than 90 days means you probably weren’t that serious about

the job in the first place. Or, in the cases of Gary Daichendt and Gary Kunis, you decided it was over before you ever got started.
The abrupt departures of Nortel’s president and chief technology officer in June was a testament both to the dangers of putting too many change agents at the top and Nortel’s enduring ability to attract managers with a saviour complex. Maybe once a company is this broken, everyone thinks they can fix it. The successive failure to do so thus far only makes the quest more appealing to Nortel’s would-be messiahs. If the day ever comes that its products, customer wins or stock price get more attention than its accounting scandals, the glory for the executive team will be great. Such high-stakes do not, unfortunately, create the best environment for building consensus around strategy.
Some analysts and industry observers were quick to attribute the shakeup to a clash between Nortel’s corporate culture and that of Cisco, where both Daichendt and Kunis are veterans. Cisco is seen as the aggressive, in-your-face American success story, steamrolling past concerns about glitches to push products into the market and sell them. Nortel, on the other hand, was described by SeaBoard Group analyst Iain Grant as the “kind and gentle Canadian company” that resisted the reorganization plans proposed by the ex-Cisco carpetbaggers.
This interpretation does a disservice to both men, dismissing their individual personalities and assuming that the solution to Nortel’s problems is to become a Canadian Cisco (which already exists, by the way, in the form of Cisco Systems of Canada). Unless they were secretly planted there by Cisco chief John Chambers to engineer the partnership he reportedly seeks, why would Daichendt and Kunis be interested in simply creating another Cisco? As for the culture war, let’s not forget that Nortel is currently led by Bill Owens, a former admiral in the U.S. Navy. You don’t get more aggressive and American than that.
We can only guess what kind of changes Daichendt and Kunis suggested that led to their impasse with Owens, but their exit hardly cripples the company from moving ahead. Nortel’s employee base could be divided into two parts. There are the long-term guys at the top, who are sketching out an overarching vision of what will cement the company’s position as a leader in global telecommunications. The other group, which makes up most of its workforce, includes the employees focused on the short-term activities. These are things that usually matter most to customers, who have bigger things to think about than Nortel’s ongoing soap opera currently being acted out in the media.

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