EXIT INTERVIEW: Carl Guardino Reflects on Key Moments on the Job

Soon, the Silicon Valley Leadership Group will get a new CEO. And that means Carl Guardino, the man who has been leading one of the most influential business advocacy organizations in the Bay Area, will be stepping down after 23 years. Think about that run for a moment. Guardino, 58, has been in charge at the SVLG longer than many of its member companies have been in operation. Google didn’t launch until 1998, a year into his tenure. High-profile companies like Facebook, LinkedIn, Tesla and Palantir didn’t start until early into the next decade.

Guardino announced his plans to step down at the start of this year and gave the organization plenty of runway to find a successor. He never could have fathomed that, in addition to plotting out a transition, he’d have to navigate the Leadership Group and its 350 members through the Covid-19 pandemic and its resulting economic downturn. He couldn’t have predicted that the death of a Black man during police custody in Minneapolis would spark the most emotional conversations about race that corporate America has ever had.

Not wanting to take attention away from his successor, Guardino wanted to talk now about his time at the SVLG and his thoughts on business in Silicon Valley. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity:

Do you remember your first day on the job?
Not only do I remember my first day on the job, I remember the three-day weekend before my first day. Because, as a recently turned 35-year-old stepping into shoes that had been held by legends in an organization created by David Packard of Hewlett-Packard, I was, in three words, scared to death. So I spent the three-day weekend before coming onboard reading every file cabinet of every quarterly board meeting and every monthly working council meeting, agenda and minutes since the creation of the organization, a point 20 years before.

Packard died nine months before you started. What was the biggest lesson that you took from him?
I often tell my wife that my key role in the leadership group was not to mess up David Packard’s vision. It is incredibly humbling to have led an organization that he created. And it’s something that I’ve written on my desk at the leadership group, and keep close at hand. And in my head and heart were his words to journalists when he created the Silicon Valley Leadership Group: “It is our job as CEOs not to sit on the sidelines and either cheer or jeer, but to get into the game and move the ball forward.” He was talking about a proactive and positive vision that CEOs have individually and collectively to improve the economic vitality of our region, state and nation, and the quality of life for our employees, families and communities.

You’ve led the Leadership Group through the dot-com bust, the Great Recession, and now the Covid-19 pandemic. Which has been the most challenging?
I came in, in 1997, young CEO, first time CEO, and enjoyed three years of a robust economy. And then the dot-com boom went bust. Like many organizations and institutions, our budget was as scorched. In that first trial by fire, I developed principles by which a CEO should manage through an economic downturn. And one was to be transparent with those principles, and
inclusive with my team around those principles so that they knew their CEO was paying attention. And have the good sense to involve bright, creative people in the downturn together. And those principles not only helped us through that first downturn, but the 2008, 2010 downturn, and the Covid-19 induced downturn of today.

This year’s protests over racial justice no doubt have led to new challenges. Do you think they’ll have a transformational effect on companies?
We pivoted our June board of directors meeting to focus solely on racial justice and equity. My style of servant leadership is that one should listen, learn and then lead. But listening and learning must come first, especially on fundamental issues like racial justice inequity. So an hour of that board meeting was listening and learning from three of our board members, African American CEOs and senior executives about their personal and professional experiences as black American leaders. That was by far the most important and most moving board meeting of the 101 board meetings during my tenure as CEO, not solely for what happened in that meeting, but what will be built through that meeting….
But if all we were doing is speaking out, we’re failing the opportunities and the importance of the moment. And that’s where standing up and stepping up are. Standing up means, as a policy organization, taking leadership roles in support of key legislation at the local, state and federal level when it comes to police reforms, racial justice and equity. Stepping up is looking internally: What can we as employers be doing within our own company, when it comes to hiring, compensation, promotions? What our C-suites look like, what our executive teams look like, what our promotion paths look like.

You mentioned “service leadership.” Why is that style is important to you?
Most of our charts place the CEO at the top. I told my team a long time ago that I would rather flip that org chart on its head, because true leaders serve their teams rather than feel that they are served by their teams. And as far as attitude as servant leadership, it changes the way that we work with others, and how we listen and learn from each other in an inclusive style. And I am far from perfect, but that is what I tried to do every single day, is to serve my team as we serve on our companies and our communities together. And it’s a mindset that I think can be game changing for the way we operate and how our companies can move forward in a more equitable way.

Immigration is in the news again. Carl, I remember an interview we did a couple of years ago were the topic came up and you became visibly angry.
I think we are much better together than we are when driven apart. And so, it makes me angry when a nation forged on the back and through the brains of immigrants, foregoes its own roots, in that regard. I’m proud that 58 of every 100 engineers fueling Silicon Valley’s innovation economy were not blessed to be born in the United States, but by courage and creativity, often sacrificed everything to come here, innovate here, and create jobs here. That has always been the strength of the United States. And to think for a moment that we should try to be politically successful by driving people apart, slides in the face of the past, present, and I firmly believe the successful future of the United States of America.

You’ve led the Leadership Group’s political campaigns around housing and transportation, and have convinced the public to back sales tax increases.
The view of the Leadership Group has always been if we’re going to support a tax, it has to be three things. One, it has to be transparent. Two, it has to be accountable. Three, we have to be paying for it as employers, if we’re asking others to help pay for it as well.

But is there a point beyond which you can’t go anymore when it comes to sales taxes?
Yes. I believe there was a point for any type of tax mechanism where the voters and taxpayers paying for it will say, “That’s enough.” That the return on the investment is no longer worth the cost. That’s the beauty of a democracy, especially a two-thirds democracy: Voters, especially incredibly smart and wise voters like Silicon Valley voters, will tell us when we hit that point, whether it’s a property tax, a sales tax, or any other type of tax or fee.

What do you think of the push by some in Washington, D.C. to break up tech giants?
It’s always interesting when people believe that government arbitrarily needs to break up a company, based on some artificial size determination. The market determines whether consumers find value in a company’s product or services, much better than some arbitrary number determined by politicians, often running for office. If they are not successful, they will cease to exist.

A few speed round questions to close us out. What happens next for you?
When I made my announcement publicly on January 7, one headline said that I was retiring. My wife, Leslee, picked up that paper and laughed and said, “Do they know you have three young children and a mortgage?” So, one, there is no retirement for me. I will be moving on to a new, full-time position. Two, I’m looking forward to at least some semblance of a break.

What was your biggest accomplishment?
Three quick bullets. Creating the Silicon Valley Leadership Group Foundation in 2002, which created the Silicon Valley Turkey Trot, Santa Run Silicon Valley and Salad Bars for Schools Run. Two, creating Housing Trust Silicon Valley. And three, successfully leading four different transportation funding campaigns, that have led to the extension of BART in the Silicon Valley and the electrification of Caltrain.

What’s your biggest disappointment?
Former San Jose Mayor Susan Hammer and I tried to lead an effort to secure state enabling legislation to allow us to pay our teachers in special education, math and science more here in Silicon Valley. We were unsuccessful in getting the state Legislature to allow us to bring that to our voters. I think it could have been a game changer for kids in special ed and for the critical importance of STEM skills for students.

The most awestruck meeting that you had?
Every meeting I have with John Chambers, former CEO of Cisco.

What would you tell 1997 Carl on his first day as CEO?
I heard a quote from Steve Jobs and I’m going to paraphrase because I won’t get it quite right. It was basically “the success isn’t what we say yes to, but that success is from the focus of what we say no to.”

Finally, what advice do you have for the Leadership Group’s next CEO?
I would say, “Don’t think for a moment that you need to fill my shoes. Fill your own shoes and in those shoes, walk your own path to accentuate your strengths and to account for your own shortcomings.”

Originally published in the Silicon Valley Business Journal on June 26 by J. Jennings Moss  – Editor-in-Chief and General Manager, Silicon Valley Business Journal

Photo: Carl Guardino stands in front of The HP Garage which is now a private museum where the company Hewlett-Packard (HP) was founded. It is located at 367 Addison Avenue in Palo Alto and is considered to be the “Birthplace of Silicon Valley.” Guardino, who is stepping down as president CEO of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, worked for HP early in his career.

Photo Credit: Tomas Ovalle