Do Experienced Pros Make Better CEOs than Founders?

Zynga (NASDAQ:ZNGA) founder Mark Pincus finally decided to turn the CEO reins over to someone who actually knows how to run a game business. That would be Don Mattrick of Microsoft Xbox and Electronic Arts fame.

Wall Street definitely liked the move, driving the stock up about 15% on the news. I can’t tell if that’s because Pincus was clearly in over his head or the coupe of landing literally a game-maker like Mattrick. Probably both.  

The burning question, of course, is can Mattrick turn Zynga around? While I hate to be such a party pooper when everyone else is having the time of their lives, I’ve got to tell you, the only real answer is ... Who the heck knows?

Pundits, gurus, and researchers love to spout off about the virtues of replacing a founding CEO with an experienced pro. But the truth is there’s absolutely no correlation between experience – or any other factor, for that matter – and ability to run, let alone turn around, a specific company.

You see, turnarounds are really hard so successful turnarounds are really rare. And when it comes to predicting how effective a given executive will be in a given situation, there are about as many variables as there are pundits with opinions on the subject. In other words, the outcome is entirely unpredictable.

One thing's for sure. I can make a pretty logical argument for either side of the debate. Not only that, but the anecdotal evidence is all over the map. That’s probably because there’s no hard line in the sand between entrepreneurial founders and experienced professional managers.

Consider that founding, running, and growing a business or three is some of the best experience you can get. Think Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Larry Ellison, Jeff Bezos, Michael Dell – there’s a long, long list of founders who did a pretty good job of picking up management as they went and scaling their startups into wildly successful enterprises.

That said, SpaceX and Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk once said he has to run the companies he founds because he's "better than the CEOs we hired." Indeed, the CEOs Musk hired along the way were nothing to write home about, but that probably says more about his ability to hire a good CEO than anything.

Musk also said, "Professional managers - MBA CEOs - are not very creative or adaptable, and their skills don't suit a startup." I’m not exactly sure what he meant by that, but I am sure that it’s the sort of over-the-top generalization that blowhards often make. Not to say that Musk is a blowhard. I would never say that. But it bears mentioning that Zynga founder Pincus, a successful serial entrepreneur, has a Harvard MBA and a banking background.

In terms of experienced pros, Larry Page and Sergey Brin brought adult supervision in the form of Eric Schmidt to run Google (NASDAQ:GOOG). I’d say that turned out pretty well. So did John Chambers at Cisco (NASDAQ:CSCO), Meg Whitman at eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY), Terry Semel at Yahoo (NASDAQ:YHOO), and Tom Engibous at Texas Instruments (NYSE:TXN). Jeff Weiner’s certainly done an effective job since showing up at LinkedIn (NASDAQ:LNKD) five years ago. 

More importantly, for every success story on either side of the argument, there are countless examples that didn’t work out.

Here’s the thing. Pundits can theorize and speculate. Researchers can study empirical data until the cows come home. But nobody will ever find a significant correlation between successful CEOs and their experience or attributes because there are simply too many variables.

Not only is every industry, company, individual, and situation unique, but in the technology industry in particular, nothing stays the same for very long. You might just as well ask what type of person makes the best spouse or friend. It's an amorphous question, as is the headline of the story. The answer is ... Who the heck knows?