At the height of the internet boom in 1999, the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, devoted a session to "wired" executives. Speakers went on breathlessly about the virtually connected 24/7 manager for whom information and communication are always a click away and no place on Earth is out of reach. At the end of it all, a man shot up his hand to pose a question: That's all very impressive, he allowed, but is that all we're going to do, work? How depressing. What about taking time out, having a beer with friends, listening to music, sex?
It was a classic Howard Stringer momenta dose of wry humor to deflate some epic business posturing. Now the joke's on Stringer. As the new CEO and chairman of Sony, he might have to resemble one of those global drones he once tweaked: Stringer, 63, runs a Tokyo-based megacorporation from its North American headquarters in New York City while commuting to home and family in England. "What I hope to bring is an outsider's perspective from a long distance," he says.
A very long distance, one that isn't made any shorter by Stringer's being the first foreigner to run such an iconic Japanese firm. But Sony needed a jolt. The company that created the Walkman and Trinitron and PlayStation no longer sets the pace in the gadget space. So Sony decided that it needed an outsider to break the grip of its notoriously autonomous engineers. They have fiercely resisted efforts by outgoing CEO Nobuyuki Idei to remake the process by which Sony develops and markets products for a world in which convergencethe interconnectedness of nearly all devicesis the dominant theme.
Getting everyone to play nice together while cutting costs is a Stringer strength. He has done that with Sony's North American businesses (music and movies, for instance). Nor is he all that worried about cranky product engineers. Says Stringer: "I know what products I like. I'm a consumer. The world's full of consumers. I've got a chance to see mockups and say, 'What do we think, guys? Let's have a go at that one.'" They might even have a little fun along the way.