Lisa Su - CEO of AMD (Part 1)

Lisa Su is one of my favourite professional top managers. Since she was appointed a CEO of AMD in late 2014, she rapidly turned around a struggling company and created almost $90B of value for shareholders. This happend not without luck: Intel, AMD’s archrival, has been mismanaged during the period; cryptocurrency market took off and demand for AMD products accelerated; risky product bets made by Lisa early on paid off handsomely. Still, given the extremely poor shape of AMD in 2014 and dramatic transformation of business since then, I believe Lisa played a crucial role in this story. Although AMD is a semiconductor company, many of the lessons we can learn from Lisa are universal and can be applied in different industries.

In Part 1 I collected prominent quotes from Lisa for the period since she joined AMD. In Part 2 I will look into her compensation, incentives and other details from proxy filings.

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On semiconductor industry: It is a fast-moving industry. You can see what’s hot yesterday is not what’s hot today. The key for all of us and for other companies is to ensure you catch those changes. What’s going to be your favourite product in 2017? That’s my job to figure out. [4] (Feb-15)

On choosing electrical engineering as her major: I just had a great curiosity about how things worked. Electrical engineering, particularly at MIT, was the hardest major, so I said, 'You know, how about we try that and see how it goes.’ [4] (Feb-15)

On managing people: People are really capable if you’re able to give them the confidence to get something done and paint the picture of where we need to go… If I can help you do 120 percent of what you thought was possible, that’s fantastic. If I can help everybody do that, we’re able to accomplish something that we didn’t know we could do. That’s the fun of it. [4] (Feb-15)

On the future or AMD: I would love ... when you look at this company three to five years from now that you say, 'Wow, she turned a great set of technology assets into something that is really special and leading the industry.’ That to me is what I’m focused on. [4] (Feb-15)

On her early years: I was born in Taiwan and came to the United States when I was 2. Like many Asian parents, mine were very focused on education. My dad would quiz me with multiplication tables when I was about 5. I did a lot of engineering things, like taking apart my brother’s model car when I was 10. I also played the piano for about 10 years. I auditioned for Juilliard but didn’t get in. [5] (May-17)

On her parents: My dad was a mathematician, and worked for New York City as a statistician. My mom was an accountant, and eventually started her own business in her mid-40s. She linked manufacturers in Taiwan to companies in the United States that needed those types of products. She’s still running her business today. They were very focused on making sure that my brother and I always achieved at a high level. There were expectations that you should get all A’s, that you should go to the best schools and that you should get a Ph.D. They weren’t questions like, “Do you want to?” They said, “You should do those things.” At the time, I wasn’t rebellious. I just thought, “Wow, that’s a lot to do.” In hindsight, it really helped shape who I am, in terms of always believing that there’s more that you can achieve if you just put your mind to it. [5] (May-17)

On her first management role: I was the lead engineer on a project for one of IBM’s next-generation microprocessors, and became a manager a few years later. I always found the specifics of directing a project relatively straightforward. The softer part of management was always more of a learning process. Early in my management career, my boss pulled me over and said, “Lisa, do you talk to your people?” And I said, “Yes, I talk to my people.” And he said, “Well, but how often?” “All the time,” I said. Then he asked me, “But do you ever ask them how do they feel?” And I said, “Am I supposed to ask that?” I was treating people the way I expected to be treated, and I don’t expect anybody to ask me how I feel. I just expect to talk about the work. So he said, “Lisa, you have to know that to get the best out of your people, different people need to be managed differently.” That was a revelation to me. I say this now to my team: “Our jobs as leaders are to get 120 percent out of our teams. We’re supposed to make the team better than they thought they could possibly be.” The way to do that is to treat everyone as an individual, in terms of what they need to be successful and how they need to be coached. [5] (May-17)

On her leadership style: I like to set very high standards and expectations. What’s inspiring to me is working on something that is really, really hard, or really, really important, and then working with the team to figure out how to reach that goal. There’s an art to doing that, because sometimes those stretch goals can seem unachievable and they can make a team less motivated. That’s where the intuition comes in. I can’t say I’m an engineer anymore, but I started as an engineer, and so I have enough intuition about just where to set those goals. And if I use my analogy of we’re trying to get 120 percent out of the team, I think you can use that in just about any situation. If the team thinks they can do something, then they can probably do 20 percent more. The art is showing them that it’s possible and being somewhat understanding if we fall a little bit short. Even if you fall a little bit short, you did much more than you thought you could. That’s the balance. [5] (May-17)

On her hiring philosophy: There are a lot of really smart people, so beyond their qualifications, I look for hunger and passion. I’ll ask: “Why are you here? Why do you want this job?” I want to understand the challenges they’ve taken on, and the risks they’ve taken in their career. [5] (May-17)

On her career and life advice to new college grads: The best piece of advice I got when I was a young engineer was to run toward problems. Many people tend to shy away from problems. To advance in your career, you need to be smart and capable, but you also need to be lucky. And you can make your luck. The way you do that is to do a great job on something that’s really, really hard. Don’t be afraid to take that risk. Some of my best work was done under an enormous amount of stress, but it brings out the best in you. So I tell people, “Look for those hardest problems and volunteer to help solve them.” [5] (May-17)

On her early days as CEO of AMD: Dr. Su told me that when she first took over as CEO, her mantra was "don't worry about the financials. Just focus on delivering great products." At the strategic level, she worked with her teams to create a product roadmap that reflected future trends and coalesced around their core competencies. "Put all of your energy into building those products and concentrate on executing this visionary roadmap," she told them. She also made an important strategic decision: "AMD would concentrate on being a high-performance computing company," which meant anything that did not meet this criteria would not pass muster with her. [6] (Jan-18)

“When I first took over, there was a desire from HR and the communications team to put together a mission, vision, and value statement, and I was thinking at the time we are losing money like crazy.” Su says to do that would have taken six months that the company couldn’t afford to spend. So instead, she drafted a memo delivered at her first all-hands meeting that outlined three objectives: “To build great products, deepen customer relationships, and simplify everything we do.” The simplicity of the message stuck more than if she’d written a 10-point value statement, Su contends. [7] (Sep-18)

“One of the most important things for a CEO is not to get insulated,” [7] (Sep-18)

On culture at AMD: Su says AMD attracts people who “want to take a risk, do something very special in the industry, and fight the battle with less resources and more freedom.” She believes it, and that’s what she consistently relays to her staff. “You are going to learn a ton and make a big impact,” she adds,” because it is a very competitive environment, and we are trying to operate at the highest level of tech.” [7] (Sep-18)

Su believes AMD’s culture is one of learning. Motivating her people to do better each quarter is what she accomplishes through her 5% rule. “I use that figuratively,” she points out, because 50% sounds like asking for the impossible. The incremental, “just a little better the next time,” has taken AMD from the brink back to profitability. Su says simply, “I’ve been pleased to have that [5% better] become ingrained.” [7] (Sep-18)

“I was given a piece of advice when I was a young engineer at IBM that has really stuck with me. Someone told me, ‘You should run toward problems,’” she recalls. “If you’re going to work on something, work on something that’s really important.” [13] (Aug-20)

Relationships are the cornerstone to Su’s leadership philosophy. Part of her strategy in helping turn AMD around was building strong relationships with clients through honesty, trust and transparency. She did the same with her more than 10,000 employees. [13] (Aug-20)

Su believes relationships are for a lifetime, whether it be clients, colleagues, friends or family. And she’s a problem solver, which means she’s driven to fix problems the people in her life may be facing. [13] (Aug-20)

“You would think that the decisions get easier because you have more resources, but they actually don’t because you have a much broader set of opportunities. In some sense, when you’re more constrained, it’s, ‘OK, I have two bets.’ But now I can have 10 bets.”  When Ms. Su was appointed to CEO of AMD, she started to listen to her customers and a massive opportunity unfolded.  While the general consensus in 2014 was that mobile devices were going to grow, Ms. Su noticed that customer feedback indicated something different; customers were actually asking for more consistent and higher performing chips for servers and gaming devices; not just limiting the growth potential to mobile. [14] (Sep-20)

I fell in love with semiconductors as a freshman at MIT. My first job was doing grunt work in a semiconductor lab.  It’s always amazing to me what semiconductors can do for our lives and society. Even more so now in 2020, what is resoundingly clear is that technology is more important in our lives. [16] (Nov-20)

On the most important decisions she has made as CEO so far: So I joined AMD in 2012, and then became CEO in 2014. The reason I joined AMD is because I felt like this was a company that could be very important in the industry. I’ve always believed that processors are the centre of the universe. I’m slightly biased, but I do believe that processors are a very, very important piece of how do you move the industry forward. And AMD is one of the few that has the capability to lead in processors. Since becoming CEO, after spending a lot of time with our employees and our customers and industry folks, it became clear that we had to set out a vision of having a very consistent and executable road map going forward, and that’s especially important with customers because when they decide to partner with AMD, it’s about a long-term partnership, it’s about investing resources over multiple years. And what we needed to do was to make sure that they had the confidence in us, that we would give them leadership products generation after generation after generation. So that was really my focus. No. 1, let’s decide what we want to be when we grow up, which is the leader in high-performance computing. And then No. 2, make sure that we earn people’s trust, our customers’ trust, our partners’ trust, that we will deliver that year in, year out, and that’s been very much the mantra of the last five or six years. [18] (Dec-20)

1             AMD's Su says engineers transitioning from PC culture               https://in.reuters.com/article/instant-article/idUSBRE90801I20130109

2             We’re excited to announce Dr. Lisa Su as AMD’s new president and CEO!              

3             AMD's new CEO Lisa Su says her company won't walk in Intel's shadow (interview)               https://venturebeat.com/2014/10/09/amds-new-ceo-lisa-su-says-her-company-wont-walk-in-intels-shadow-interview/

4             Visionary of the Year nominee: Lisa Su, CEO of AMD               https://www.sfgate.com/visionsf/article/Visionary-of-the-Year-nominee-Lisa-Su-CEO-of-AMD-6070002.php

5             Lisa Su on the Art of Setting Ambitious Goals               https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/19/business/lisa-su-on-the-art-of-setting-ambitious-goals.html

6             How Dr. Lisa Su Made AMD Relevant Again               https://www.pcmag.com/opinions/how-dr-lisa-su-made-amd-relevant-again

7             How this CEO avoided the glass cliff and turned around an “uninvestable” company               https://www.fastcompany.com/90229663/how-amds-ceo-lisa-su-managed-to-turn-the-tech-company-around

8             CEO Lisa Su on building the new AMD      https://www.axios.com/amd-chipmaker-ceo-lisa-su-468f150b-d17e-419a-bff9-ad8e08537b02.html

9             AMD CEO Dr. Lisa Su confirms “zero truth” to rumours of her departure and “the best is yet to come”  https://www.pcgamesn.com/amd/lisa-su-departure-rumour-false

10           In AMD’s darkest, Dr. Lisa Su-less timeline the company loses a third of its value               https://www.pcgamesn.com/amd/without-lisa-su-darkest-timeline

11           AMD CEO Dr. Lisa Su talks new Ryzen 4000 chips and out-performing Intel               https://www.theverge.com/2020/1/21/21075200/podcast-amd-ceo-lisa-su-interview-ryzen-chips-ces-2020-vergecast-intel

12           AMD's Lisa Su cites 'shifts in thinking' about US semiconductor manufacturing               https://www.zdnet.com/article/amds-lisa-su-cites-shifts-in-thinking-about-us-semiconductor-manufacturing/

13           The Problem Solver — Lisa Su     https://atxwoman.com/the-problem-solver-lisa-su/

14           LISA SU AND HER B2B DECISION MAKING PHILOSOPHY FOR GROWTH               https://clearseasresearch.com/blog/marketing-research/lisa-su-and-her-b2b-decision-making-philosophy-for-growth/

15           AMD CEO Lisa Su gets chip industry’s highest honor               https://venturebeat.com/2020/11/19/amd/

16           Lisa Su: immigrant, female, PhD, and — yes — CEO of AMD               https://www.fierceelectronics.com/electronics/lisa-su-immigrant-female-phd-and-yes-ceo-amd

17           Lisa Su’s Channel Awakening: Why Partners Could Be AMD’s ‘Largest Growth Opportunity’       https://www.crn.com/news/components-peripherals/lisa-su-s-channel-awakening-why-partners-could-be-amd-s-largest-growth-opportunity-

18           How AMD CEO Lisa Su Plans To Keep The Pressure On Intel, Nvidia               https://www.crn.com/slide-shows/components-peripherals/how-amd-ceo-lisa-su-plans-to-keep-the-pressure-on-intel-nvidia