What Paul Otellini taught me about bluster

When I learned of former Intel CEO Paul Otellini’s death this week, it wasn’t the big things about Paul that flashed through my mind—not his ushering in of the Wi-Fi era with Centrino laptop chips in 2003, not the massive restructuring of Intel he drove in 2006, not the surprising decision he made to retire in 2013.

Instead, it was a relatively small thing that, to me, said so much about Paul—and about Intel, the company he loved and served since he finished college. It also reminded me of what a serious leader says and does—some contrasting consolation in our current political era of hollow bluster.

That small thing was a simple remark Paul made to me in 2006, during the big restructuring, when I was running employee communications for the company.

In that role I didn’t report directly to Paul (my boss, the head of HR, did). But because of the size of the restructuring and Paul’s sensitivity to its impact on employees—thousands of employees leaving the company, major changes in executive roles, and large shifts in product priorities—my internal communications role meant I got to work more closely with Paul than I would have otherwise.

It seemed to me, then and now, that Paul sweated every detail of the restructuring, every change employees faced, every worry they might have about the company and its future.

With a change that big, and a leader that thoughtful, it’s tempting for a communications advisor to let a tone of high drama start to infuse the memos and presentations you’re drafting for the CEO. And that’s exactly what I was starting to do. Paul’s mantra during that time was “change before you’re forced to,” and in my effort to convey that message to employees I began to unintentionally inflate the story. In essence, I was taking a serious matter and enlarging it into something of cosmic proportion.

(This is another disease that we communications professionals are susceptible to—the “this is the most important moment in history!” fallacy.)

Paul recognized the slope I was slipping down. In one memo review he did some subtle nudging. “One or two mentions of ‘the stakes are high’ will go a long way,” he told me in an email. Still, my drafts kept showing that I wasn’t getting his point.

Finally, in one hallway meeting, he pointed to the draft memo in his hand, looked me in the eye, and gently said: “This isn’t Intel. This isn’t us.”

And I got it. Our restructuring was a serious matter, but not a cosmic one. The future of the company, and the fate of tens of thousands of employees, offered more than enough weight to get our attention, without my inflating things into existential scale. The details Paul was sweating—of revenue streams and cost structures and employee rosters—would provide all the threats and opportunities needed to help us take things seriously. No additional gilding would be required.

In this way Paul was channeling the spirit of one of his CEO predecessors, Andy Grove, whom Paul once served as technical assistant (in essence, chief of staff) during his remarkable Intel career progression. Andy had little patience with what he called “misty-eyed” posturing; he just wanted leaders like Paul to aim high and then guide employees through the painstaking steps to reach those heights.

And Paul did just that for Intel. To me he was always professional and respectful, frequently funny, and often appreciative, especially as, later, I got better at drafting memos that reflected his quiet seriousness. Along the way, he always knew who he was and who Intel was—and what he helped Intel become with his intelligence, grace, and patience as he taught so many of us how to be better at our own jobs.

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