Can Zynga founder Mark Pincus share the game controls?


Zynga founding CEO Mark Pincus, left, with incoming CEO Don Mattrick, who led Microsoft's Xbox business. (GlobeNewswire/Associated Press)

How well will Zynga founder Mark Pincus and his newly announced replacement, Don Mattrick, play together?

That's the question being asked now that the online gaming company has brought in Microsoft's Mattrick to replace Pincus as CEO. In a move that's been compared to "an editor at the New Yorker leaving to start a blog at the Bleacher Report," Mattrick, a major player in the gaming industry, will try to score some winning points at Zynga — which is struggling mightily as it misses earnings, lays off hundreds of employees and closes offices. Meanwhile, Pincus will remain at the company as chairman and chief product officer.

Founders — as we've been reminded repeatedly lately — are opinionated about the strategies their babies should take; risk getting their egos bruised because of how closely they identify personally with the organization, and generally have a hard time letting go. Some see those risks in particular at Zynga, where Pincus, who was named one of the five worst CEOs of 2012 by Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business professor Sydney Finkelstein, has a "reputation for being a micro-manager" and has "frustrated numerous former executives" brought in from the outside. In addition to holding on to executive titles, Pincus also owns more than 60 percent of the company's voting rights, making it hard for the board to overrule him. And he will report directly to the board, rather than to Mattrick.

In many companies, that kind of management-by-committee would signal game over. And who knows how egos will clash and the game will end at Zynga. But from the outside, there are several reasons to think this transition from founder to outside CEO could actually prove to be a win.

For one, Pincus reportedly played a big role in recruiting Mattrick to the job. After all, since he has majority voting control of the company, it's hard to believe he wouldn't have had a say or that the board went around him to make the hire. ComputerWorld reports that Pincus pursued Mattrick for months, that he was the only candidate for the job, and that there was no formal search process. Whether or not that's the right way to replace a CEO, the hand-picked nature of Mattrick's recruiting bodes well for the pair's relationship.

Second, Mattrick is no pinch-hitter. A seasoned veteran of the gaming industry, he's presided over major growth and innovations at Microsoft's Xbox business, which was in trouble when he came onboard. So he's done the turnaround thing before.

He's also been an entrepreneur himself, founding a games start-up at 17 that was sold to Electronic Arts in 1991 for $11 million; he stayed there for 15 years and was the force behind popular games such as "Need for Speed" and "The Sims" while holding executive roles. So he's more than just a suit, bringing both programming credibility and the awareness of what it's like for Pincus to be a founder who's no longer CEO.

Finally, Mattrick seems like he could be a breath of fresh air for employees — and for Wall Street. Pincus hardly has a reputation as a nice-guy CEO — his hard-charging tenure has been called everything from a "reign of terror" to "a Harvard Business School case study on founder overreach." Meanwhile, Zynga's stock surged on the news, to give a sense of investors' enthusiasm. When those two groups of people are happy, success often follows.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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Jena McGregor · July 1, 2013