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Adjunct Professor, Public Relations and Communications Graduate Program,
Georgetown University, and
CEO, EnviroComm International
April 24, 2011
Ambiguity. The word means it goes both ways. Company communicators are leery of it. They are trying to engage with stakeholders and the media in terms that won't come back to haunt them. Ambiguous messages can backfire. On the other hand, a lot of corporate executives love ambiguity. Making decisions that allow flexibility or wiggle room are fairly common in business, just as they are in the legal profession, and ambiguity is a natural opening move in legal negotiations.
Leadership communication requires clarity. The mission statement needs to be clear and specific: "That's the hill we plan to take!" But corporate leaders in their management roles find a form of clarity in the dictionary meaning of ambiguity: a situation in which something can be understood in more than one way and it is not clear which meaning is intended.
Ambiguity can weed out weakness and give rise to strength in leadership. The story of Paul Otellini at Intel is an illustration.
In 1992, Intel's management told Paul Otellini, then 41 years old, he was being moved from a job that he loved, and in which he was doing well, to a job for which he was totally unprepared. Instead of running a business unit, management said he would now be the chief of sales and marketing.
Otellini resisted. He was not clear what the order intended. He was a hard worker, he was ambitious and he considered his job in the business unit was an excellent career path at Intel. He wrote an eight page letter to his boss, asking him to reconsider.
Andrew Grove, the CEO, wouldn't hear of it.
In an interview in 2004, Grove told a New York Times reporter, what he had in mind when he denied Otellini his request to stay where he was. He said he considered it a promotion — and here is where leadership ambiguity comes in — to see whether the man could do something entirely different.
"This wasn't a promotion because we thought Paul would be perfect for the job," said Grove. "Clearly, sales and marketing was not his background. It was more...let's see how he does."
You can almost see this preeminent executive, Grove, smiling at the incongruence — the ambiguity — perceived by the younger executive. Top management was putting a star performer to the test. Try a guy in a job for which he was unqualified to see if he can cut both ways. See if he can make it in a different context. And, loyalty. Putting an employee into a zone of discomfort is a test of loyalty: will the individual do as leaders direct, go where leaders sense the need for inchoate leadership?
In short, Intel's calculated ambiguity provided the path for Paul Otellini to move up or, worst case, move out. He could not stay stuck in his comfort zone.
In 2002, at the age of 52, Otellini had proved himself. He was named president and chief operating officer at Intel. Two years later — in the Times interview, Andy Grove signaled that Paul Otellini was in line to succeed CEO Craig Barrett, who announced his plan to step down.
In May of 2005, Otellini became the company's fifth CEO, a role he has handled through opportunities and challenges — including considerable ambiguity in the process technologies business.
Bruce Harrison is an adjunct professor in the master's program at
Georgetown University, Washington, DC. He and Judith Muhlberger teach
courses in leadership communications and corporate crisis communications.
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