When Lisa Su took the helm of AMD, the company was on the verge of bankruptcy. Since then, she’s rescued the ailing semiconductor maker and transformed it into a chip industry leader. She’s earned acclaim on lists including Barron’s Top CEOs and CNN Risk Takers.
She’s a world-class engineer with bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from MIT. She also has a gift for bringing people together.
Creating a Culture of Innovation
The culture of an organization is a critical driver for its ability to innovate. While many leaders sorely underestimate the importance of creating an innovative culture, those who do understand it are able to lead their teams and companies towards success.
In 2012, when Lisa Su joined Advanced Micro Devices as president and CEO, the company was in an identity crisis. It had missed product deadlines and suffered from an inability to compete with Intel. The stock was dropping, and people were predicting bankruptcy and spin-offs.
What Su did was put the business back in focus. She streamlined the R&D pipeline, honed in on one core design (Zen) and started building technology for key next-generation tech like cloud computing, data centers, gaming and artificial intelligence. She also created a focused committee of the most important engineers and managers across the company to regularly review the roadmap and ensure the most critical projects were receiving the necessary resources.
This was a monumental task. The company had a lot of debt, and it was difficult to make progress in a market that was becoming increasingly competitive. Su knew she had to create a culture of innovation within the company that would keep it positioned for growth.
She created a team of people who were excited about working together and were willing to take risks and share ideas. This was the start of a culture of innovation that helped AMD to move forward and become a top competitor in the market again.
As a result, the company has seen some major wins over the last few years. Its processors are being used in supercomputers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the company has made significant strides in the field of artificial intelligence. The company’s latest CPU and GPU chips are being used to build machines that can learn and think, much like humans.
The future is looking bright for AMD, and it’s clear that Su’s leadership is what made it all possible. She is a world-class researcher, and her combination of technical brilliance, people skills and business savvy has made her one of the most successful S&P 500 CEOs over the past several years. She is also a recipient of the IEEE Robert N. Noyce Medal and Global Semiconductor Association Dr. Morris Chang Exemplary Leadership Award, and Fortune Magazine named her #2 on their “Business Person of the Year” list in 2020.
Creating a Culture of Collaboration
When Su took over AMD, it was a company in dire straits. It had laid off a quarter of its workforce and its stock price was trading around $2 per share. One exec recalls it was “deader than dead.” It was in danger of going out of business.
But it wasn’t long before she began orchestrating a turnaround that was one of the biggest in tech history, driving the chipmaker’s stock up nearly 30-fold. It was a feat made possible by her technical brilliance, people skills, and keen business acumen.
Her first order of business was to identify AMD’s core markets. She focused on gaming, the data center, and immersive devices, which she considered to be “stickier” markets where a customer would keep purchasing AMD’s technology year after year. She also invested in R&D to drive innovation and increase competitiveness.
In addition, she forged strategic partnerships to expand AMD’s reach. This included inking deals with Lenovo, Sony, and Nintendo to use its GPUs in their products. AMD also landed big customers like Google and Amazon to use its chips in their massive data centers.
While bolstering these new relationships, Su’s team kept working on innovative chip design. She understood that engineers thrive when they’re given the freedom to work on remarkable projects. And so she made it a priority to keep them happy and engaged by providing them with the resources they needed.
And by the way, she also instilled a culture of accountability. In her words, “At the end of the day it’s about the results that matter, and if you want to get to great results, you have to be accountable for what you do.”
Su’s leadership and approach are paying off. She’s brought back excitement for AMD among employees, customers, and investors. And despite the coronavirus, which may have slowed semiconductor sales, she still expects to grow her business over the long term. This is the kind of leader you want to follow, and we’re proud to call her our CEO of the Week.
Creating a Culture of Execution
When Su took over AMD in 2014, the company was in dire straits. It had racked up $2.2 billion in debt. It had spun off its fabrication plant where chips are baked (a blow to cofounder Jerry Sanders’ infamous boast that “real men have fabs”). It was in danger of losing its top spot in PC processors, and the company’s stock was languishing at $2 a share.
To turn things around, Su needed to do more than just lay off some people and slash costs. She also had to rebuild the culture. One key to this was to create a “social operating system” with review meetings that helped employees develop and sustain the specific habits of execution. “To be successful at execution, a company needs to have a core set of processes that are rooted in the values and culture of an organization,” according to leadership experts Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan in their book Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done. Those processes need to be part of the very fabric of a company, and they need to be led by a leader who is deeply engaged in them.
As a result, AMD has seen an uptick in productivity that has helped its bottom line. In fact, the company is now generating more revenue than ever before.
Today, the chipmaker is aiming to take a bite out of Nvidia’s 85% market share in AI processors. Nvidia’s leather-jacket-wearing CEO Jensen Huang is a formidable rival, but Su is a deliberative leader who has a reputation for being a people person.
Su’s technical brilliance and people skills have energized AMD. She has pushed the company to perform beyond its manufacturer-spec limits, much like a gamer overclocks a computer processor. Her success has made her one of the S&P 500’s highest-paid CEOs in 2022, with a compensation total of $30.2 million. It has also landed her on Forbes’ annual ranking of America’s richest businesswomen. Her story exemplifies how a leader’s habits of execution can create an organization that thrives and even survives in challenging times.
Creating a Culture of Humility
As the first woman to lead a major chip manufacturer, Lisa Su has set a new standard of leadership in technology. Her passion for innovation has enabled people to unlock unprecedented levels of power and efficiency in their computing experiences. Her achievements have shaped the tech industry and inspired future generations of engineers.
As a young girl growing up in New York, Lisa Su loved solving problems. She would take apart and reassemble devices to figure out how they worked. This curiosity and drive to learn helped shape her into the brilliant engineer that she is today. In a recent webinar, Su discussed how these early life lessons have guided her leadership at AMD as she tackles the challenge of turning around a struggling company.
One of the first challenges that she faced was to refocus the company on what it was good at. AMD was originally known for building high-performance computer processors and graphics cards. When Su took over, she focused on what made AMD unique and what it could do best in the market. This meant avoiding areas that were not a good fit for the company, such as developing technology for mobile phones or sensors for “internet of things” machines.
It also meant making bold bets on key products that would set the company up for success. For example, she invested in a line of desktop processors called Ryzen and server chips called Epyc. These chips are now powering critical next-generation technologies like artificial intelligence, data centers and gaming. The chips have been well received in the marketplace and are helping AMD compete with market leader Intel.
Another challenge that Su has faced is to keep the company’s culture focused on collaboration and learning. She has created an environment that encourages employees to work together, share ideas and build on each other’s successes. This approach has led to the development of innovative technology that is disrupting the industry.
Overall, Su’s leadership at AMD has been characterized by a combination of strategic thinking, flawless execution and humility. She has a clear vision of where she wants to take the company and communicates that clearly to her team. She has also built a strong network of support within the industry and is committed to advancing technology to benefit everyone.