Shaking off the haters doesn't work in a turnaround.
Everyone has an opinion on what Twitter TWTR should do. Especially the 300 million people who use it.
Twitter’s executives have tried to spin this into a positive. “It’s great that so many people care!” But what CEO really wants 300 million backseat drivers with megaphones telling them how to do their job? (Ironically, Twitter’s eponymous service only serves to amplify those megaphones.)
Endless blog posts outlining “What Twitter Must Do,” or “Why Twitter isn’t Cool Anymore,” or “Why Twitter Must Sell” drown out all of the company’s bright spots, like the fact that it has doubled revenue every year since its IPO.
That reality didn’t help former CEO Dick Costolo, who resigned in June. Over his five years leading the company, Costolo gradually lost the trust and confidence of the blogging, Tweeting, day-trading masses. Quarter after quarter, Costolo delivered revenue growth but very few new users and no clearer path to profitability. Every three months, the narrative continued—and calls for change grew louder.
For Twitter’s new permanent CEO to be successful in revitalizing the company, he must first silence the critics before they gain any momentum. Jack Dorsey, who was named to the post this morning, has clearly figured that out.
Consider the media roll-out for this morning’s announcement.
First Dorsey announced the news in a series of positive Tweets. Then Adam Bain, newly promoted to Twitter’s COO, chimed in with glad tidings. (He is “thrilled” and “honored.”) Board member Peter Currie tweeted that the board was unanimous in its decision. Costolo tweeted that he was “delighted” for Dorsey and “excited” for the future of Twitter. And Evan Williams, Twitter co-founder and board member, took to Medium, the blogging platform he created, to explain why he’s “glad Jack is back.”
It was quite a narrative reset for a company that has been leaderless, at least officially, for four months and whose share price slid almost 30%, to about $25, in the intervening period.
Even analysts offered warm wishes of congratulations on the conference call following the announcement. When Dorsey skipped answering an important question on how he would split his time between running Twitter and Square, the payments startup where he is also co-founder and CEO, no one followed up.
Twitter’s employees are unanimous in their support of Dorsey, Bain declared. Dorsey had also “pleased and impressed” Twitter’s board of directors, Currie said.
In sum, this morning was nothing short of a big, happy love-fest. Perhaps most importantly, Twitter shareholders felt the love, too: The company’s stock closed the day up almost 7%. Same goes for Twitter employees, who gave Dorsey a 100% approval rating during his three months as interim CEO, according to Glassdoor. (The data is based on 37 reviews.)
Now for the hard part: Keep the positivity going. That’s not an easy task for Dorsey, who plans to take that other company he leads through an IPO.
But if there is one thing to be learned from the Dick Costolo era, it’s this maxim: Control the message. Once investors lose faith, it doesn’t matter how fast revenue is growing or how quickly Twitter executes on its product roadmap. For a public company as high profile and highly valued as Twitter, it’s nearly impossible for a CEO to win back lost faith. As I wrote when Costolo stepped down, investors are fickle. If there’s a target on your back, you’re as good as dead.
It’s an important lesson that Dorsey has internalized. According to Re/code, Dorsey learned that “perception becomes reality” at Square. His reputation wasn’t great when he was ousted as Twitter’s CEO the first time. But he realized that if people perceive him as a product visionary, a good leader, and a strong manager, then he is a product visionary, good leader, and strong manager.
For that reason, Costolo’s advice to Twitter employees today rang a bit hollow. “There is only one narrative that matters,” he wrote, “and it’s the one you’ll create for the world.”
More than anyone, Costolo understands that the pot-and-pan-bangers actually do matter. A lot. Dorsey knows this, too. Which is why Dorsey’s first task at Twitter isn’t creating a new product or service—it’s creating a new narrative.
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