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Company boards must manage 'brilliant jerks'

Today Programme

BBC Radio 4

Elon Musk

Elon Musk, the colourful boss of Tesla, is in court this week defending himself in a defamation trial over a comment he made on Twitter about a British diver Vernon Unsworth during last year's rescue of a group of boys from a cave in Thailand.

Rob Shelton, an executive advisor and author on leadership based in Silicon Valley says companies need to change the way they deal with unconventional chief executives.

He calls these unusual bosses "dominant visionaries" or "brilliant jerks".

"They're gamechangers, they can bring about master change. And they're often gifted with great mental prowess. This makes them a different kind of leader than boards have traditionally dealt with," Mr Shelton tells Today.

He adds that boards needed to challenge some of the ideas and create a culture within companies that not only supports the right decisions, but also "minds the blind spots of these leaders", who might not have the full range of experience or skills needed to head up the firm.

Mr Shelton concluded: "It's the board's responsibility to help these visionaries be successful."

Google's co-founders step back - but why now?

Today Programme

BBC Radio 4

Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin
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Larry Page (L) and Sergey Brin (R)

Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin are stepping back from their respective roles as chief executive and president at Alphabet, the parent company of the internet search giant.

Sundar Pichai, already chief executive of Google, will take over running Alphabet too.

But despite Silicon Valley tech giants coming under increasing regulatory and political scrutiny, Emily Waterworth, investment manager at Brewin Dolphin does not think the timing for their decision is deliberate.

"It's very clear that the founders of Google have been less and less visible," she told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"I think it's a lot about simplifying the management structure, and also these guys have been less and less into detail and more and more into the high level projects that are going on at Google."

How WeWork compares to other Silicon Valley firms

Today Programme

BBC Radio 4

WeWork's chief executive Adam Neumann
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WeWork's chief executive Adam Neumann

So if Uber is failing next to Amazon, then what does that make office property rental firm WeWork, which has seen its valuation plunge in recent months?

"If there's such a thing, WeWork would be a more extreme version of Uber, than Uber. It is losing more money, it has a worse business model, that's based on short-term loans and real estate - things that could fluctuate at any moment," Sarah Lacy, founder and editor-in-chief of the tech news website Pando told Today.

She added that WeWork is more commonly mentioned in the media for having issues with how it is run, than for anything else, which is a red flag, and that WeWork's corporate governance is "even worse" than Uber's.

In her mind, WeWork's chief executive Adam Neumann can't continue to control the board, if the firm wishes to have any chance of going public successfully.

"The company's future financing is dependent on going public this year. It has to go public this year," she said.

"What's the one dramatic thing that can change this year? That's the founder leaving the company."

Is Uber still the next Amazon?

Today Programme

BBC Radio 4

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Facebook is one technology firm that managed to go public - list its share on a public stock exchange successfully - extremely successfully in fact.

But other Silicon Valley companies have had tough time selling their shares. Uber and Lyft, the taxi companies went public this year and since then their shares have tanked.

Sarah Lacy, founder and editor-in-chief of the tech news website Pando, explains the difference between Uber and Amazon, which also was a loss-maker in the beginning.

"Everyone criticised that Amazon lost money too, but if you compare the actual companies at their time of IPO, they're very different stories, and Amazon lost money until it dominated the core market, and then used that dominant position in that market, which was profitable, to then expand into other areas and invest in what it's doing," she told the Today programme.

"Uber, on the other hand, is losing more and more money quarter after quarter. Its growth is slowing, which is the big thing you cannot do if you're going to lose this much money. There is no end to this money losing in sight, and it hasn't even dominated its core market."

She adds that Uber has also "utterly failed" in its autonomous cars efforts, citing the fact that the head of Uber's self-driving project is now facing criminal charges over allegedly stealing car technology trade secrets from Google.