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At Bloomberg, an unsurprising return of the king

(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The announcement Wednesday night that Michael Bloomberg is returning to lead his namesake company is being called a stunning reversal and a surprise move.

Yet in a way, it really shouldn't be. Yes, it's certainly a departure from what he has said in the past. Bloomberg long insisted he had no intention of returning to the helm of the media giant. Since the three-term mayor stepped down from his position leading New York City in January, speculation has been rampant over what his future would entail: gun control crusader, public health advocate, billionaire philanthropist, potential presidential contender?

But the idea that a founder — particularly one who's recently vacated such a powerful perch — would want to return to lead the company he built is actually one of the most familiar narratives in business. And it's particularly true if the company is facing a kind of crossroads, as has been said about Bloomberg LP. Though an undeniable powerhouse, the company has seen a drop in the banking industry's demand for its terminals (or data and analytics platforms) and is trying to broaden its appeal beyond Wall Street.

The business world is littered with the names of founders who leave their CEO job, only to return years later — whether to help right a listing ship, heal a bruised ego or regain control of their baby. Steve Jobs at Apple. Howard Schultz at Starbucks. Jerry Yang at Yahoo. Michael Dell at Dell. Sometimes it goes particularly well. Other times, not so much.

Michael Bloomberg, of course, is different from these founders in that he went on to serve three terms as mayor of the country's largest city. These others also weren't talked about (with any seriousness, at least) as a potential presidential candidate, and didn't launch the kind of major advocacy efforts that would seem to pull them further and further away from the corporate suite.

Still, that doesn't mean Bloomberg's founder genes aren't still very much alive. He continues to own 88 percent of the firm. His very name is emblazoned on the company letterhead. And, like almost all company founders, his identity surely remains closely tied to the business he started. It's not surprising to hear Bloomberg say that the more he got reacquainted with the company in recent months, "the more exciting and interesting I found it." It is his company, after all.

Maybe the news is surprising because it seems too soon for Bloomberg to be restless, as one former Bloomberg executive has suggested. Maybe it's because "media company head" could seem like a fallback move for a leader who was trying to challenge the National Rifle Association and break political stalemates in Washington. (His philanthropic efforts will continue.)

Or maybe it's because of how rare it is to hear an executive say, as outgoing Bloomberg CEO Dan Doctoroff said of his resignation: "you have to understand that when God comes back, things are going to be different."

As Bloomberg told New York Magazine a year ago, he just seems to like running things. "I am an executive," he said when asked whether philanthropy would be big enough for him. "What I do is make decisions, hire people, get ’em to work together. I’m not a consultant, I’m not an investor, I’m not a teacher, I’m not an analyst. You have to know what your skill sets are." It appears Bloomberg does. 

Read also:

How will Mike Bloomberg speak to moms?

A little morality tale from David Sedaris

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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 · September 2, 2014

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