ByteDance CEO to step down and helm new role focusing on strategy

ByteDance is undergoing a leadership change, with founder Zhang Yiming (pictured left) transitioning to a new role at the end of this year focusing on long-term strategy, corporate culture, and social responsibility. At the same time, co-founder and HR head Liang Rubo (pictured right) will be named the new CEO. Zhang and Liang will work in collaboration over the next six months to ensure the smoothest possible transition. Discussions of Liang potentially taking over as CEO began in March this year. 

Ever since ByteDance was founded in 2012, Zhang said Liang has been “an invaluable partner”, completing the coding for new systems, buying and installing servers, and developing key recruitment and corporate policies and management systems, among the list of key contributions. Liang has also taken on several key roles at ByteDance, including head of R&D, Lark and efficiency engineering, and most recently, HR and management. Lark is an enterprise product by ByteDance that is available in Japan and Singapore. 

Meanwhile, Zhang also explained in his letter that since the beginning of 2021, he has spent a lot of time thinking about how to better drive real long-term breakthroughs, “which cannot simply rely on steady, but incremental, progress”. After several months of consideration, Zhang concluded that transitioning out of the CEO role, with all of the related day-to-day responsibilities, would enable him to have a greater impact on longer-term initiatives.

"The truth is, I lack some of the skills that make an ideal manager. I am more interested in analysing organisational and market principles, and leveraging these theories to further reduce management work, rather than actually managing people," he explained.

Zhang is also worried he might be relying too much on the ideas he had before founding ByteDance and has yet to challenge himself by updating those concepts. For example, while he spent plenty of time keeping track of developments in the machine learning space before 2017, he has not had the time since then to delve deeper into the topic. In fact, he admits that he sometimes struggles to keep up with the discussion during technology meetings.

Reminiscing on a conversation he had with some entrepreneurs three years ago about the challenges of scaling a business, Zhang said that often when companies mature and expand, many fall into the trap of the CEO becoming overly central - listening to presentations, handling approvals, and making decisions reactively. “This leads to an over-reliance on existing ideas already in the company, and results in knowledge structures being slow to iterate,” he said.

Hence, Zhang decided to take on a new role at ByteDance to avoid this trap and believes he can best challenge the limits of what the company can achieve over the next decade, and drive innovation. According to him, this will be done by drawing on his strengths of highly-focused learning, systematic thought, and a willingness to attempt new things.

“I also believe that giving back to society is an important piece of this, and we have already made some headway, exploring new initiatives in education, brain disease research and digitising ancient books. Having been involved in some of these myself, I hope to do more by contributing my own ideas and helping deliver new solutions,” he said.

Separately, ByteDance's TikTok also witnessed a leadership shuffle earlier this month when Shouzi Chew, ByteDance's then CFO, took on the dual role of TikTok CEO. He continues to be based in Singapore and was previously CFO and partner, director, president of International at Xiaomi Technology for over five years, his LinkedIn said. Zhang previously said Chew brings deep knowledge of the company and industry, having led a team that was among its earliest investors, and having worked in the technology sector for a decade. "He will add depth to the team, focusing on areas including corporate governance and long-term business initiatives," Zhang added.

The appointment comes months after Kevin Mayer resigned as CEO last August after taking on the role in May 2020. Mayer's departure came at a time when ByteDance was pressured by former US president Donald Trump to sell its US operations. Vanessa Pappas, who is now COO, previously led the company as GM in the interim.

Last year, ByteDance named Oracle the technology provider of TikTok in the US, with multiple media outlets reporting that the latter plans to acquire a minority stake in the app. Financial Times said then that TikTok could potentially become a standalone entity in the US, adding that Oracle will ensure that data from American users will be stored and processed in the US. Microsoft also entered the race to acquire TikTok's US operations. However, the TikTok-Oracle has been on hold ever since Joe Biden took over as US president earlier this year. The Wall Street Journal reported that Biden is undertaking "a broad review" of Trump's efforts to tackle potential security risks from Chinese tech companies. 

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