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McAfee CEO explains how to know when to cut your losses



McAfee Chris Young
CEO Chris Young


  • When Chris Young became CEO of one of the computer
    security industry’s most venerable brands, McAfee, he was
    immediately faced with a difficult decision.
  • He made a choice to kill an important project that
    ticked off a lot of people at his company.
  • How he made that difficult decision is a lesson that
    anyone can use to help them make difficult decisions.

Chris Young has had a charmed career, culminating about 17 months
ago when he was named CEO of one of the computer security
industry’s most venerable brands: McAfee.

But almost as soon as landed that top title he was faced with a
difficult choice on whether to launch an important and much-hyped
new product or kill it. Either path had far reaching
implications for his new company, he tells Business Insider.
Ultimately, he made the difficult choice to kill it, a decision
he knew would tick off a lot of people at the newly formed
company he was tasked with leading.

How he solved that conundrum, and others like it, is
something that anyone can do when faced with a difficult

A star in the security world

Young is a well-known star in the computer security world, one of
the people that built the internet security industry as we know
it today, jumping from one “it” company to the next, with roles
of ever increasing authority. He did security at AOL in the early
’00’s, went to RSA when it was hot, took on exec roles of
increasing importance at EMC, VMware and Cisco.

McAfee, Chris Young
McAfee CEO Chris


In what felt like a risky move at the time, he left a cushy
senior vice president job at Cisco to run Intel’s wobbly security
business, signing on as general manager four years after Intel
bought McAfee for $7.6 billion. He jumped to the GM job at Intel
“not knowing that Intel would spin it out,” he tells Business

But in April, 2017, Intel
did indeed spin out McAfee
, retaining a 49% stake and selling
51% to private equity firm TPG in a deal valued at $4.2
billion, half what Intel paid. Young instantly went from GM to

And he was shocked to discover that being CEO of a multi-billion
concern was suddenly different, even though the people, products
and customers were exactly the same.

“Any executive level position has a lot of responsibility. You
are on the hook for the numbers and there’s a decent amount of
pressure,” he says. “But one difference between GM and CEO is
there’s no one else to look at after you any more. You can’t pass
credit on to anyone else and you can’t pass blame on. You really
are the final point of responsibility for your organization.”

It creates a “different level of pressure on you as a leader,” he
says. People hang on your words, for instance. And they don’t
just watch what you do, they watch how do it, or “how you show up
every day,” he describes.

He began to see, in a very personal way, that how the leader acts
is what can make or break the company’s culture. It “establishes
the unwritten rules, how people treat each other,” he said.

So, he wanted to use that to his advantage. McAfee was, in
effect, a new company and Young set about drafting corporate
values with one priority in mind: he didn’t want values that
simply sounded good but values that would actually help him and
others make decisions, especially the hard ones. And, once
drafted, he had to “live them” and use them himself.

He was immediately tested.

Before the spin out, his team had embarked on a big project to
build a new product, a cloud service known in the security world
as a cloud-access security broker (CASB). A CASB helps companies
ensure that all of their devices are properly secured. It was a
new market that had been created by a few startups.

“We had been working on it for over a year. We had engineers
dedicated to it. We were building it organically, inside the
company,” he described.

Around the time the spin-out was completed, the product was
getting close to launch. But the team had missed some deadlines,
as tends to happen when building a big new product from scratch,
so not every hoped-for feature would be in the first release.

So, in one of his first big acts as CEO, Young killed the

“It was internally a very unpopular decision,” he deadpanned.

People inside the company were angry. His sales teams had been
hyping it up to customers in a highly competitive market. It had
been positioned inside and outside company as McAfee’s next big
thing for growth. 

But Young looked at its capabilities compared to what was out
there and didn’t feel like the product “was going to be a winner.
And that’s one of our values: we play to win or we don’t play,”
he said.

He had created that value and it was time to walk-the-walk. So he

Happy ending

The story has a happy ending.

About seven months after the company was spun out, Young did see
a way to “play to win” in the CASB market: an acquisition. McAfee
bought Sky High Networks, one of the startups that invented the
market, for an undisclosed sum. It had raised $106 million and
was valued at $400 million. 

“I made that call to not play well before we engaged in any
discussion [to acquire] Sky High,” he said. In other words, he
killed the product before he even considered buying one of the
market leaders.

Because Intel did not already have a CASB product, it was a much
easier deal to do and, once bought, it was easier to integrate
into the company. And the product is selling well, Young said.

The lesson Young learned is one that anyone can follow: When
creating your own leadership values, define them in a way that
helps you make hard decisions. Literally back the trade-off into
the value. Can’t win? Don’t play, even if that means quitting.
And then “live the value” as Young describes it, even if doing so
is unpopular, at first.

And finally, have some faith that if living your values means
deliberately closing one door, another will open another, a
better one for you and your team.

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