strategy and business

The Thought Leader Interview: John Hennessy

It would be difficult to imagine someone more wired into the culture at the nexus of technology and higher education than John Hennessy. A computer scientist who joined the faculty of Stanford University in 1977, he started a highly successful company, MIPS Computer Systems, in the 1980s. He rose up through the academic ranks at Stanford, and then served as president from 2000 to 2016 — a period during which companies founded by university alumni took the tech world by storm. Marc Andreessen, cofounder of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, dubbed him “the godfather of Silicon Valley.” After stepping down from the presidency, Hennessy returned to the classroom, and, naturally, engaged in new ventures. He wrote a book on leadership, Leading Matters: Lessons from My Journey. And he became the non-executive board chair at Alphabet, the parent company of Google, where he has helped manage the recent leadership transition as founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin stepped down from their executive posts. And, backed with a US$750 million endowment, and fueled by $400 million from Nike founder Phil Knight, Hennessy created the Knight–Hennessy Scholars program, which aims to instill a culture of leadership among an interdisciplinary group of graduate students. In his office in Denning House on the Stanford campus, Hennessy, 67, spoke with strategy+business about the similarities — and crucial differences — involved in leading high-performance organizations in the realms of education and technology.

S+B: You describe your path to becoming president of Stanford — a pinnacle of educational leadership in the U.S. — as a somewhat accidental journey.

I loved being a professor. I also loved being an entrepreneur; I could have done either one and probably been perfectly happy. I discovered partly as a by-product that I liked actually leading an organization. In much of academia, the administrative side is considered the dark side. When I took the job as chair of the computer science department, it was out of a good citizenship obligation; everybody has to do it, it was my turn. And I discovered initially that I liked creating opportunities for faculty and students. The one real turning point for me was when President Gerhard Casper asked me to move up from being dean of the engineering school to be provost in 1999, to replace [future U.S. Secretary of State] Condi Rice, who was stepping down. I was really unsure. Being a dean was strategy+business issue 98 a great job: 220 faculty, you could be hands-on. When you get

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