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Culture shock: BlackBerry’s John Chen ushers in much-needed change

Carmi Levy
BlackBerry Ltd. Chairman and CEO John Chen speaks at the BlackBerry Security Summit in New York City July 29, 2014. Chen announced at the event that they were buying privately held German firm Secusmart GmbH which specializes in encryption and anti-eavesdropping services for governments, companies and telecommunications service providers. REUTERS/Mike Segar (UNITED STATES - Tgs: - Tags: BUSINESS TELECOMS)

Sometimes it’s the small moments that speak volumes.

Tuesday morning, as I waited in a crowded lobby at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design with other journalists, analysts and customers for organizers of the BlackBerry Security Summit to let us into the adjacent theatre for the main event, I suddenly found myself being gently shoved from behind by a slowly opening door.

It was about 15 minutes to showtime, but CEO John Chen couldn’t wait to get started. He apologized for barging in, and before anyone could put down their bagels and juice, he was in the middle of our informal circle, joking offhand about how his PR people hated when he did this, and how glad he was that we had come from near and far to hear him and his leadership team speak.

He bantered with us for about five minutes, amiably answering questions and tossing in the occasional good-natured barb about the competition, before he headed back inside to finish last-minute preparations.

Opening up the doors

For a company once known as a monolithic fortress of sorts, where CEOs were about as accessible as North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un at a pro-democracy demonstration, this impromptu, unscripted encounter with the CEO reinforced just how much has changed since Chen took the job eight months ago.

He has quickly established himself as the de facto face of the company, and isn’t shy about speaking his mind in ways that might make more conventionally-minded CEOs skitter back to their cue cards and media minders.

John Sims, BlackBerry’s President of Global Enterprise Services, says Chen’s personality aligns nicely with where the company needs to be.

“I’ve known John for a while,” he told Yahoo Canada Finance. “He’s very decisive, and he’s transparent inside the company. He’s had to deal with some very difficult things. He had to restructure the company to get it to the right size, but he was very above-board with employees about that and I think they’ve appreciated that.”

He was hardly the only employee speaking positively of the boss. Other staff echoed his thoughts and spoke of the night-and-day change from the way things used to be.

The benefits of transparency

Sims, who previously crossed paths with Chen at German software giant SAP, which bought Sybase for US$5.8 billion in 2010 after Chen had successfully turned the database and mobile enterprise software specialist around, said the internal focus on changing BlackBerry’s culture has had a broader impact.

“He’s very transparent externally, as well, and customers appreciate that,” he said. “He’s very quick at making decisions. He doesn’t put things off to tomorrow or next week or next month. Generally speaking that’s been a very productive environment for the company to operate within.”

Sims, who joined BlackBerry as part of an influx of new leadership after Chen’s arrival, says the appeal of the new culture was difficult to resist.

“The opportunity that existed within BlackBerry for the team of people – the existing team and the new ones who came in – is to return a company that was iconic and provided the definition of mobile enterprise back to the status it should have within the industry,” he said. “I’m excited about that opportunity, and I think it’s why most of us who came in came in. It’s challenging, but it’s fun.”

As BlackBerry continues its journey toward a very different, enterprise-focused future, it’s already evident that the culture being built by John Chen is attracting like-minded leaders, engaging employees, and encouraging customers who may have wondered whether BlackBerry was in it for the long haul. The company’s future is, of course, still not a slam dunk. But if my small experience in the hallway yesterday is any example, stakeholders have every reason to buy into Chen’s vision for a once and future enterprise darling.

Carmi Levy is a London, Ont.-based independent technology analyst and journalist. The opinions expressed are his own. carmilevy@yahoo.ca