Wharton Interviews Lenovo (To the Shame of B-Schools Everywhere)

In the Hutong
Late Saturday Night
Watching “Deadwood” on HBO Asia

Wharton professors Micheal Useem and John Zhang interview Lenovo marketing boss Deepak Advani and manage to make all three of them look ridiculous.

Useem (who, again, I deeply respect as an organizational studies expert) and Zhang hurl such clearly softball questions at Advani that they make themselves look like they are somehow beholden to the PC maker. Advani, for his part, obliges by sticking to his PR-briefed messages. It was like going to Dodger Stadium and expecting to see a showdown between a great hitter and a great pitcher, and instead watching batting practice.

What They Asked

They asked questions like:

Useem:  Following Lenovo’s acquisition of the IBM PC line, could you talk about the kind of leadership you need to exercise under the new Chinese ownership?

and

Given that you have worked on both sides of the Pacific, what are some significant leadership styles or approaches that are similar or different from those of the U.S., and how do you use them to bridge an international gap?

But the mother of all questions, and the one that REALLY should have set off a hardcore line of questioning, was:

What role does the IBM image play in the Lenovo marketing? Is it helpful or a hindrance?

Good Lord! Don’t these guys at Wharton read up on anything before an interview? What image? Lenovo just tossed out the IBM brand name like it meant nothing, and these guys are asking what role it plays? NONE!

What They SHOULD Have Asked

There were a lot of questions that should have been asked right up front, and a lot of answers that came from Advani that should have brought follow-on questions.

1. Lenovo just made a decision to drop the IBM brand name from its computers. Given the clearly recognized value of the IBM brand, what motivated the company to make such a decision?

2. What role did you have in the “drop IBM” decision?

3. What level of access do you get to Yang Yuanqing? How regularly do you speak?

4. Lenovo is losing market share – and indeed it’s leadership – in China. What are you doing to reverse the slide in the one market in which investors expect Lenovo to retain leadership?

5. Are you making changes to your China team? Why not?

6. Lenovo as a brand is largely meaningless outside of China. What are you doing to change that?

You get the point. Real questions. Substance.

At the very least I would have questioned some of the things Advani said.

“I remember in your [Useem’s] leadership class that you would say, in the context of Apollo 13: “Failure is not an option.” We are in the sort of situation where we are energized to make this thing work.”

That’s almost a revelation of a company with their backs to the wall. Nobody asked “what makes this such an energizing situation?” No probe. No question. They just let it slide.

“Both the old Lenovo and the old IBM PC division differentiated themselves in the marketplace through innovation”

Lenovo an innovator? I would have asked “Oh, really? And what were some of Lenovo’s innovations, and if they really mattered, why have their market share and sales figures kept sliding.” Or, if you want to accept what he said, the next question I would have asked would have been “innovation is great. Do you really have a sales force that can sell innovation sufficiently to get a return on investment on it?”

“And we are both focused on honesty and integrity in all our dealings.”

I would have asked “given the recent allegations in the Washington Post that Lenovo’s competitors are compelled to engage in unethical business practices in doing business in China, are you concerned that such behavior might extend to your own organization? What steps are you taking to ensure they do not?”

How about “you are bringing together two separate cultures. You can’t have two different cultures under one roof. Which culture is going to give way, Lenovo or IBM? Or are you going to create something new? What is it?” No, wait. There may not be a P.R. approved answer to that one.

Why Didn’t They Ask Those Questions?

Again, it’s shocking that two men who hold senior positions in academia would fail to probe in their interview. Certainly, this is a standard to which they would hold their MBA students. But I can think of a few possibilities. Here are some facts for you to consider:

  1. Deepak Advani is a 1998 graduate of Wharton.
  2. Lenovo has just done a deal with the University of Pennsylvania (Wharton’s parent institution) to provide a deal on computers to Penn and Wharton, faculty, staff, students, etc. No specifics of the terms of the deal are mentioned in the June 9 press release.
  3. Lenovo would be an important donor to the school.
  4. Lenovo is a potentially important recruiter to the school.
  5. Lenovo is an important source of paid MBA students to the school.

Reach your own conclusions.

In the meantime, this is the third time I’ve had to call Wharton on it’s analysis of China. C’mon, guys. You’re better than this.