Confessions of a CEO

By Stephanie N. Mehta, Fortune senior writer

Orr retreated again, building a new house -- he took pains to use the same floor plan as the family's original home so as not to upset Adria -- and participating in a philanthropy workshop sponsored by the Hewlett Foundation. For Orr, who had never been particularly civic-minded, the experience was formative. Until then he'd thought of "dying a complete man" only in terms of his own life. Now he realized there was another component. In March 2005, just a month after moving into his remodeled home, Orr went to West Africa and began working with Inveneo, a group that helps provide Internet connections in remote and poor areas.

Early last year, Aruba Networks came calling again. The company was getting ready for its IPO, and the board wanted a CEO with a track record taking companies public. One name kept coming up: Dominic Orr. It had been three years since the Vivace debacle, and Orr thought he might be ready. A talk with Adria, by then a freshman at Brown, helped convince him he was.

"If it is what you love, then you should go back," Adria recalls telling him. "You're good at it, and you have changed."

"I'd like to hijack the meeting to address some competitive issues," Orr says. He is literally sitting on the edge of his seat in a conference room at Aruba's Sunnyvale, Calif., headquarters. He may have mellowed, but he's no pushover. Aruba, which sells wireless networking gear to corporations, competes with the likes of Cisco (Charts, Fortune 500) and Motorola (Charts, Fortune 500) in a brutally competitive field. (A sign on his office wall reads THE WEAK ARE KILLED, THE WOUNDED ARE EATEN.)

Yet there are visible signs he's trying to temper the culture of "brutal honesty." Early on, he brought in a consultant -- not a spiritual coach -- to help shape Aruba's corporate culture through training and workshops. During the monthly management meeting I observed in July, the discussion was interrupted by a mariachi band, part of a monthly program to celebrate employees' birthdays. Though it felt a bit like a scene out of The Office, it's part of Orr's bid to create a fun workplace. "Where's the margarita machine?" one worker asks.

"I think he is free to be a good CEO without feeling a sense of desperation around the challenge," says Geoffrey Moore, the Silicon Valley-based consultant and author. Moore has known Orr for more than a dozen years and considers him a top-tier leader. "Before, his identity was so deeply at stake. Now it is like, 'I know how to do this.'"

For Orr, the balancing act doesn't necessarily mean working fewer hours (he typically gets about four hours of sleep a night), but working different hours. "If he's in Boston for business, he'll drive down to Providence to take Adria for dinner," says Aaron Bean, Aruba's head of human resources, who also worked for Orr at Alteon. "The old Dom would have immediately hopped on an airplane to Chicago for a sales call."

Melding compassion and capitalism has been difficult as well. "This is definitely a work in progress," he writes in an e-mail. Orr tries to heed the advice of Xilinx's Roelandts, who reminded him that tough decisions benefit the overall enterprise. Cayton coaches him that "harsh actions do not equate to being wrong, and soft actions do not equate to being right."

Day to day, Orr simply tries to be an empathetic leader, taking workers' and peers' feelings into consideration before he acts. Still, his family's feelings are now paramount. "I have been increasingly taking Alvin and Adria's opinions ... in my decisions on matters big or small," he says. Dominic and Teresa speak periodically, mostly about the kids and their charity work. And Dominic's relationship with Alvin is getting better -- slowly.

One of my last meetings with Orr is over dinner at a Singaporean restaurant in the Bay Area. Cayton is there, and so is Alvin, now 25. We've been discussing the family dynamic circa 1992, and Orr is talking about all the transcontinental moves. He begins, "When we moved back to Palo Alto ..." Alvin interrupts: "First of all, we didn't move from Singapore to Palo Alto. Mom and I moved. You moved from Singapore to Japan."

Orr stares at his plate and nods. "That's right," he says quietly. Alvin turns to me and continues, "I understand why he loved work. It's where he found his escape. But then he shouldn't have gotten married and had kids." A look of pain crosses Orr's normally placid face.

But then, just as suddenly, there are moments that remind Orr why he did. Leaving the restaurant, Alvin casually slings his arm around his dad's shoulder. Alvin plans to head out for a drink later that night with Callisch, now a marketing executive at Ruckus Wireless and Alvin's current boss.

He wants his dad to join them. "You should come," Alvin says, with genuine feeling. Orr smiles and says he'll think about it. In that moment of closeness with his son, he sees a glimmer of light.  Top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.