Culture

Howard Stringer channels Howard Beale. Now what?

Sony's CEO wants his troops to "get mad." Here's my question: Is Sony more screwed up than we thought?

I've always admired Sir Howard Stringer. Any ex-journo who can finagle a knighthood (honorary or not) from the queen obviously has a lot on the ball. When he took over at Sony three years ago, he knew he was walking into a mess. The fact that this historically very insular company was willing to put its trust in a gaijin spoke volumes about a willingness to change.

He carried out the mandatory reorganization and promise to break down the famously high walls separating divisions and product groups. Stringer wanted to get the creative juices flowing again so Sony could be more...well, like Apple. And after tripling profit for the fiscal year ended March 31, you can make the case that Sony's heading in the right direction.

But I'm not sure what to make of his charge to managers to "get mad" (as reported in Friday's Wall Street Journal). Reading between the lines is always risky, but Stringer's got to be frustrated that everyone thinks Apple's the cooler company. (Not to mention that Nintendo's kicking butt in the gaming business.) Maybe Stringer's looking at the numbers and sees that revenue--though up--rose just 7 percent for the year. So it was, according to the Journal:

"I'm asking you to get mad," Mr. Stringer said in one of his most strongly worded speeches, according to those people. He also asked them to be more "energetic," "bold" and "imaginative" in running their businesses.

A Sony representative declined to comment on the speech.

The meeting is an annual event in Tokyo attended by more than 1,000 Sony managers from around the world, and is meant to set the direction for the coming year. This year was particularly important because it came after the company had completed a turnaround plan, and before it sets a growth strategy for the next three years. Sony says it will unveil this plan in June.

Sounds like Howard Stringer is channeling Howard Beale, the fictional mad news anchor in the movie Network. Getting mad is one thing. Getting "imaginative" is quite something else. I can get as imaginative as I can, but don't expect me to crank out War and Peace anytime soon. Stringer's an awfully smart guy and he's made progress since taking over. He's entitled to take a victory, but he still hasn't revived Sony's reputation as the last word in cool gadgetry. I wonder whether that has less to do with motivation than with the talent at his disposal. Anyway, what's your take?