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Being Good

There’s a very interesting post in NY Times Bits Blog today, comparing Monday’s departure of Microsoft’s Steven Sinofsky, president of the Windows division, with Apple’s firing of Scott Forstall, senior vice president of iOS Software, two weeks ago. In the post, the author asks, “When do the costs of keeping brilliant leaders who cannot seem to get along with others outweigh the benefits?” Naturally, this piqued my interest.

Steven Sinofsky spent 23 years at Microsoft; Scott Forstall spent 15 years at Apple. These were not new hires and both had been considered to be likely successors to their respective chief executives. Microsoft’s Sinofsky is described as having “achieved hero status” and for being “widely admired for his effectiveness in running one of the biggest and most important software development organizations on the planet.” Apple’s Forstall is said to have “accomplished great things as the leader of the teams behind the software for Apple’s iPhone and iPad” and “seemed to most closely embody the technology vision of Steve Jobs.”

But being good at their jobs was no longer enough. In the end, it was their negative attitudes that did them in. They did good work, but they were not good people. They lacked empathy for their customers and empathy for their teams. And as a result, they both failed at being successful leaders.

“His abrasive style was a source of discord within Microsoft,” an executive said of Sinofsky. “He could be secretive and difficult to get along with.” Regarding Forstall, “members of Apple’s senior management [said] that they could not stand to be in meetings with him” and that he “had incurred the ire of other executives after inserting himself into product development that went beyond his role at the company.”

Sinofsky’s brusque personality had been wearing on Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer for some time. According to the author’s interviews with several top executives there, it was “an accumulation of run-ins with Mr. Ballmer and other company leaders, rather than a single incident” that ultimately led to his forced departure. It apparently had been a long time coming for Forstall as well, who was a trusted ally to Steve Jobs, and without him no longer had the protection he needed to survive there. Forstall was “known as ambitious and divisive, qualities that generated more friction within Apple after the death of Mr. Jobs, who had kept the dueling egos of his senior executives largely in check.”

What draws me into these stories the most is that the final straw — the unacceptable behavior of both Sinofsky and Forstall that respective CEOs Ballmer and Cook could no longer overlook — was an inability to apologize for their mistakes. When the heat was on, they hung their teams out to dry, and their apathy sealed their fate.

As was widely reported when Forstall was fired, his downfall was not the market failure of Apple Maps in iOS6, but the way in which he handled it.

“While tensions between Mr. Forstall and other executives had been mounting for some time, a recent incident appeared to play a major role in his dismissal. After an outcry among iPhone customers about bugs in the company’s new mobile maps service, Mr. Forstall refused to sign a public apology over the matter, dismissing the problems as exaggerated.”

By refusing to sign the apology letter, not only did Forstall demonstrate a tremendous lack of empathy for the customers he serves, he also showed his team that he was unwilling to stand in solidarity with them. There is no doubt in my mind that his every-man-for-himself attitude was a poison within Apple that manifested itself in a low quality product.

Taking full responsibility and showing true leadership, CEO Tim Cook signed the letter instead.

Similarly, “Microsoft executives were incensed by the failure of Mr. Sinofsky this year to take ownership of the company’s failure to comply with an agreement with European regulators on Web browsers, which could result in a substantial fine.” When the EU made the antitrust violation complaint, it was Microsoft’s Board of Directors who apologized to customers and authorities — not Sinofsky, whose team was responsible for the negligence. Sinofsky and Ballmer took hits to their bonuses as a result.

The lack of camaraderie Sinofsky fostered on his team, and his indifference to the needs of those he was meant to lead, is best illustrated in this story about a recent Microsoft company retreat:

“One example of the kind of behavior that hurt Mr. Sinofsky’s standing at the company occurred this year at a two-day retreat for Microsoft’s senior executives at the Semiahmoo resort on the coast just below the Canadian border in Washington State. At the meeting, Microsoft’s various division heads were expected to make presentations on their businesses, answer questions and remain to hear their peers repeat the exercise.

“When Mr. Sinofsky stood on the first day to speak about the Windows division, he told the group he had not prepared a presentation, and if they wanted to catch up on the progress of Windows 8, they could read his company blog, where he publicly chronicled the software’s development. He answered questions from the audience and then left the resort, while his colleagues remained until the next day, according to multiple people who were present.

“Mr. Sinofsky’s early exit and halfhearted presentation were widely noted by his colleagues, irking even his admirers in the company. ‘He lost a lot of support,’ one attendee said.”

That’s no way to treat the people who work their butts off to make the company successful. A team’s behavior and attitude are most certainly impacted by the behavior and attitude of its leader. Sinofsky’s apathy killed his team’s morale, and just like the debacle with Apple Maps, this too can be felt in the quality of the newly released Windows 8. “Consumers are just plain baffled,” says The Atlantic Wire. “Nobody can figure out how to use the thing!”

When you lack empathy for your customers, you will fail to provide a product and service that takes their problems away and lets them do better work and be better people. When you lack empathy for your colleagues, you will fail to collaborate, predict market conditions, meet business objectives, and create a positive atmosphere in which to work. No customers, no profits. No colleagues, no company. It’s a simple equation: empathy = prosperity.

Some people fear that the factory produces fewer widgets when the manager leaves the floor, that in the end, these tyrannical leaders were actually good for business.

“Although many people at Microsoft viewed him as a ruthless corporate schemer, Mr. Sinofsky ran the highly complex organization responsible for Windows as a disciplined army that met deadlines, and he was respected by people on his team.” Steve Jobs has also been described as a bully and a dictator, screaming at employees whose work failed to meet his standards and working people to the bone.

“One concern in getting rid of forceful executives like Mr. Forstall and Mr. Sinofsky is that their employers will begin developing products by committee, rather than in the sometimes heated crucible of clashing personalities, where someone with the strongest vision can prevail.

“But one Microsoft executive said Mr. Sinofsky’s departure was not a choice of harmony at the expense of creative tension.

“’You need both.’”

Being good means being perceptive and being pleasant, it means having instincts and having insight, being strong while still being soft. Empathy doesn’t work alone; you also have to know how to take action. But action without empathy, that will surely alienate you from everyone you depend on. It’s good to remember, no one is an island.

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  • http://helpmyseo.com David Amerland

    Whitney, that’s an excellent post on empathy and its long-reaching impact on business. It raises the question of whether it pays to be nice or not when the company ‘s future and those who work in it, depend on you. I think you have conclusively proved there is a difference between being nice and being right and one does not preclude the other. In the social media age it is incredibly important for businesses that are busy transitioning to a social business model to understand the difference.

  • Brad

    Excellent writing on caring and sharing. You dont have to be the nicest person in the world, but you need to be able to walk in other peoples shoes at the very least to understand them and how they relate to you

  • http://www.vidacom.com David Haddad

    “By refusing to sign the apology letter, not only did Forstall demonstrate a tremendous lack of empathy for the customers he serves, he also showed his team that he was unwilling to stand in solidarity with them.”

    That statement may indicate a tremendous lack of empathy :-). Just because someone does not choose to put on a phony public spectacle, which is what many of these apologies are and how Fortsall may have perceived it, doesn’t mean they don’t have empathy. I somewhat admire Forstall for refusing to play the game. It’s extremely insulting and demeaning to the extreme to treat adults in such a manner, and demand that they apologize. If Tim Cook wanted to issue an apology *he* and he alone should have done it, as the *head of the company*. He could have even signed it “Tim Cook and the Apple Team”.

  • http://www.susandeland.com Susan DeLand

    Any business – whether service or manufacturing – exists for two reasons: to find their customer’s need and desire and to fix it. This is done by understanding and empathizing with their particular audience. Putting oneself in the perspective of the recipient /user teaches a smart company volumes and positions them for a much higher probability of success. Equally important is to exemplify this to your own employees. They are the ones doing the work and to whom you look for excellence. A CEO needs to be visionary and firm, but neither of those qualities precludes being an interested and engaged human being.

  • Lou Rosenfeld

    Nice piece, Whitney. Still, I can’t keep thinking of Steve Jobs, whose products were incredibly attentive to users’ needs, but who apparently was a huge pain in the ass to everyone he worked with (hearsay, of course).

    • http://www.whitneyhess.com/blog whitney

      It was his empathy, not apathy, that made him behave that way. His aggressiveness was simply his determination to expand others’ empathy.

  • Lou Rosenfeld

    Dunno, guess I’m not buying it–seems overly generous. How was Jobs’ aggressiveness different than Sinofsky and Forstall’s asshattedness? Would we be saying the same thing about either if they’d ascended to lead their respective companies? Like Jobs, they’d have no challengers; instead of seeing them as lacking in empathy, we’d praise them for their strong leadership.

    I think Jobs was a likely a plain old jerk with incredible vision. He simply understood long before anyone else that empathetic design would distinguish his products from their competitors. Again, it’s all based on hearsay, and I’ve not gotten around to reading the Isaacson book yet.

    Actually, this all reminds me of a great SNL spoof of another famous chief executive: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TuujTYHCmgs (in a twisted way, I’ll admit). Enjoy!

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  • http://needleanonymous.blogspot.com/ NeedleOfJustice

    If I had to choose, I’d probably be Buddha over Steve Jobs. But I can’t choose, so I see no harm in putting a little more buddha into my jobs. Is niceness<greatness?