Ep 2: Lisa Su: Beyond the Glass Cliff

AMD CEO Lisa Su, a veteran of IBM and Freescale, has been leading a resurgence at the chipmaker. Photo: AMD

AMD CEO Lisa Su, a veteran of IBM and Freescale, has been leading a resurgence at the chipmaker. Photo: AMD

When it comes to the chips in personal computers, there's Intel, and then there's AMD.  

Intel's massive, worth $165 billion. AMD is much smaller. Worth $8 billion. 

Two years ago, AMD was circling the drain. The PC market crashed in the global economic slump, and the smaller rival in the chip business got the worst of it. Then, a leadership change. The board installed a new CEO: Lisa Su. 

Students of recent corporate history will recognize this situation. Some call it the glass cliff. 

That's not to be confused with the glass ceiling. The glass ceiling is when supremely qualified women can't seem to break through into the corner office, because some invisible barrier holds them back. 

The glass cliff is different. It’s when women get to the corner office only to recognize that they've walked into the business equivalent of a suicide mission. Maybe the company is already in a nosedive. Maybe things are about to get a lot uglier. Either way, the newly-minted CEO is left holding the bag. 

The glass cliff is different. It’s when women get to the corner office only to recognize that they've walked into the business equivalent of a suicide mission.

Where have we seen this before? Think Ginny Rometty at IBM. Marissa Mayer at Yahoo. Carol Bartz at Yahoo. Meg Whitman at HP. Anne Mulchahy at Xerox. 

But. The thing is, sometimes in these glass cliff situations, the women CEOs step over the glass cliff, and they don't fall. Sometimes they fly. 

And that's why I wanted to talk to Lisa Su. She stepped over the glass cliff, and AMD stock is soaring. If you'd bought $1,000 worth of the stock two years ago when she got the CEO job, it'd be worth more than 3,000 dollars today.  

She's done it by focusing the company's mission, on product quality, delivering on time, and boosting morale. Now AMD chips are in the latest versions of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and its graphics chips are in the most powerful new Apple MacBook Pros. 

Oh, and I didn't mention – Lisa Su also happens to be an Asian-American … woman … CEO. And while maybe that shouldn't be a big deal – look at the numbers, and it kind of is.  

Steve Bannon, now President-Elect Trump's chief adviser, notoriously claimed last year that two-thirds or more of Silicon Valley CEOs have Asian heritage. That didn't sound right, so I counted. Fortune Magazine has a list of the top 1000 American public companies by sales, the Fortune 1000. There were 101 technology companies on the list at last count. Seventeen of them have CEOs with Asian or South Asian heritage, far less than two thirds.  

Asian-American women on that tech list? There's just one. Lisa Su. Here's a little bit of her story.