Complete overhaul Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2008

During Greg Ballard’s second month as president and CEO of Glu Mobile Inc., a third of the company’s employees boycotted the company Christmas party.

At his first board meeting, Ballard told the company’s board of directors that Glu’s corporate culture was the worst he had ever experienced.

“It was filled with deception; it was filled with fear and intimidation,” Ballard says. “People would not talk to anybody without the door of their office closed. You would see them furtively checking to make sure nobody saw who they were talking with when they closed their door.”

Five years after Ballard’s cultural overhaul, the mobile games publisher has grown to 2007 revenue of $66.8 million, up from $1.8 million in 2003.

Smart Business spoke with Ballard about how to reinvent a culture and why it’s sometimes best to just shut up.

Q. How did you turn around the company’s culture?

The biggest thing I did was get 10 people out of the company. There was a schism between one group and the other — there was no way the two sides were ever going to work together effectively again.

So I took a position; I took a side. I said, ‘We’re going to keep these people, and these people are going to go.’

There was one day when there were 35 people, and the next day there were 25 people. It’s a little like playing poker. When you look at your hand and you realize you don’t have anything, you put four out of your five cards on the table and you draw again.

We’ve got a great hand now. The first couple hires I made after that were people I had known from past jobs. We built a great team out of an auspicious beginning.

Q. How did you decide which side to take?

One of the most important things for a new CEO to do when they come in is to make sure you don’t come to conclusions too fast. There’s a lot you still can learn once you’re inside the company.

So I didn’t do anything for the first two months, other than make sure that I wasn’t breaking anything.

A couple people threatened to resign if I made them report to certain people, and I didn’t. Not because I knew that was the right answer, but because I didn’t want anybody to leave until I figured out who I wanted to have stay.

So I took a couple months to find out who was right, who was wrong — what was broke and what was working. Other CEOs ... one guy told me he would have done all of it on the first day. Maybe he would have, and maybe he would have gotten it right. But because I took more time, I felt that I had a much better handle on what needed to happen once I made my decision.

Q. How did you decide what to change?

One of the most important things for a CEO — probably throughout their entire tenure with a company but certainly at the beginning — is to shut up for a while. There’s a tendency for CEOs to want to have a viewpoint and always want to talk and express that viewpoint and articulate a vision and be a leader. Sometimes, being a leader can stop you from listening.

It’s real important when a CEO comes into a company to talk to as many people in the organization as you can — all the way down to the lowest person on the totem pole. Ask questions, but don’t feel obligated to articulate your own view of how things are going faster than you can.

A lot of folks want to come in and take charge, show their stuff, and really impress everyone with their vision and energy and operating skills. The fastest and surest way to make mistakes is to stop listening. So I listen. I walk around and talk to people. I take them out to lunch.

I try to put the informational pieces together to create the puzzle in my mind of how it all fits together. It’s an important time for CEOs to listen and to be thinking but not necessarily to feel compelled to take fast action.

Q. How did you get everyone on board with the vision?

Part of it was talking and listening and discussing it with people. The vision that emerges is not me going off into the desert and coming back with tablets and a view of the world. The vision that emerges from that process is a vision that is organic — from the business itself and the people in the business.

Any time we have been successful in articulating a vision for the company and moving forward, I don’t know that I’ve ever been solely responsible for that vision or that I had somehow seen something that other people didn’t see.

What I think I’m very good at is condensing information that other people have, weaving it into a story and seeing what the milestones along that path have to be to get there. <<

HOW TO REACH: Glu Mobile Inc., (650) 532-2400 or www.glu.com