Qualcomm's Paul Jacobs: How to lead a tech giant

Key Points
  • Qualcomm Chairman Paul Jacobs shares management advice for leading a tech company.
People walk past Qualcomm's stand during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain February 24, 2016.
Albert Gea | Reuters

Paul Jacobs is the chairman of chip-making giant Qualcomm, a company his father co-founded in 1985. Today, Qualcomm is to the smartphone what Intel once was to the PC.

Qualcomm helped pioneer early cellular technology and is still on the cutting edge of today's LTE and future 5G networks. Over the years, it has shown a knack for getting its innovative ideas baked into the basic operations of smartphones around the world – from Apple and Samsung to HTC and Xiaomi.

But with ubiquity comes challenges. Qualcomm is usually fighting legal battles on multiple fronts worldwide — it's currently taking on Apple over payment for its intellectual property — to make sure it gets what it believes is fair pay for technology it has created.

During a conversation at CNBC's Headquarters in New Jersey, Jacobs shared some of his management advice and opened up about his early years at Qualcomm – where his teams developed one of the first app stores, and helped transform traditional cell networks from phone-call carrying conduits into data-delivery pipelines.

Eat Your Own Lunch

When Jacobs first took the reins as Qualcomm CEO in 2005, the company was dominant in its niche area of early cellular technology. But a CEO's job is to look for the next major technological shift, and be ready. He bought a company that had innovations in wireless data that ended up being a key part of LTE, placing a bet that people would one day stream video through their phones.

"My saying was always, if somebody's going to eat my lunch, I want it to be me," Jacobs says. "We said hey, we're going to be ahead of this one."

Qualcomm is trying to do the same thing with the next hot wireless data standard, 5G, which is now taking shape.

Lead Your Own Way

Jacobs's father was one of the founders of Qualcomm, and its first CEO. Jacobs was always interested in engineering, and had worked at his father's companies while pursuing advanced degrees. His leadership style, though, was different from his father's. Founders are often extremely hands-on, and Paul decided to moderate that a bit.

"I would sit in a meeting with people who were lower down the chain, and they would look to me to make the decision. I'd say 'No, that's actually your area of responsibility, I want you to make the decision,'" Jacobs says. "And the reason why that was important was, because when they hit a bump, they can't say, 'Oh, well, that was Paul said to do that, I give up.'"

As Qualcomm got bigger and started placing more bets, it was ever more important to make sure executives owned their bets.

Double Down On Your Success

Qualcomm built its own smartphone in 1998, based on the Palm operating system. Earlier, Jacobs had gone to Apple and tried (unsuccessfully) to get the company to make a smartphone out of the Newton handheld computer. But these were just steps toward a much bigger vision. Qualcomm believed Internet-connected cell phones were the future, so Jacobs and others decided to design a custom chip to make that a reality. It became Snapdragon.

"We said, 'Hey, this smartphone thing? It's going to be huge. We're going to go at that, we're going to put all of our effort behind it."

When you've got an idea you believe in, and it's panning out, go big.

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Correction: This story originally misstated Paul Jacobs' title. He is the chairman of Qualcomm.