It was an odd series of events, to say the least. Out of the blue, Apple iOS software chief Scott Forestall was abruptly ousted. And just a few weeks later, Microsoft Windows czar Steve Sinofsky was similarly gone, although the official word was that he resigned. You say tomato, I say tom-ah-to. Same difference.
The reason? Both senior executives were as abrasive and divisive as they were brilliant and talented. It wasn’t a single incident that caused their demise, but rather chronic conflicts with peers, and perhaps even their CEOs, that rendered these highly accomplished leaders toxic to their respective organizations.
Although this happened back in 2012, I vividly remember some of the stories and thinking to myself, “unacceptable.”
There were reports of a two-day executive offsite where, instead of presenting the status of his critical Windows 8 development effort, Sinofsky stood up, referred his peers and CEO Steve Ballmer to his blog, answered some questions, and left a day early. In all my years as a senior executive, I’ve never seen anyone do something so brazenly disrespectful. Never.
The situation at Apple was even worse. A long-standing feud between Forestall and design chief Jony Ive had escalated to the point where the two executives couldn’t even sit in the same room with each other. Obviously, a company can’t function effectively when key members of its management team won’t even talk, let alone work together.
I wish I could say that such conflicts are rare, but in the corporate world, I’m afraid they’re fairly common. What is unusual is that these two situations were allowed to fester for so long –--to the point where they became publicly known and there was no solution left but to give up on a top-notch executive. And let me tell you, CEOs never make those kinds of decisions lightly.
This is the point in the story where I’m supposed to tell you that I’ve been involved in similar feuds over the decades, but we were always mature enough to work things out before they reached the point of no return. Except if I told you that, I’d be lying. While I did manage to get along with most and outlast others, some conflicts did end badly.
Perhaps the strangest situation resulted in both of us, two senior veeps, resigning on the same day. Not solely because we couldn’t get along, mind you, but that definitely played a role. In that particular case, however, it was the CEO’s failure to draw clear lines of responsibility that created a dysfunctional overlap that never should have happened. C’est la vie.
The thing is, it’s easy to sit in judgement when supposed adults can’t seem to put themselves in each other’s shoes and work things out for the greater good, as we’ve all been taught to do... especially those in leadership positions. People often lament, “Why can’t we all just get along?” Like it or not, we can’t “all just get along” because that’s not how it works in the real world.
Whenever you bring highly accomplished, respected and opinionated executives with diverse backgrounds, personalities and leadership styles together, there are bound to be issues that transcend the usual conflicts over product features or marketing strategies to become personal.
Having been in that situation many times, I can tell you from experience that it’s not always the case that we put our own egos ahead of the greater mission of the company, as you might expect.
On the contrary, it’s because we care so deeply about the cause that we’re willing to put our own jobs on the line and fight for what we believe in our hearts to be the right decision. And sometimes, we let our passions get the better of us. That, I’m afraid, is when things usually go south.
It’s one thing to say that calmer minds should prevail, but when it comes to human relationships, some differences are simply irreconcilable, as we all know from the high divorce rate.
So the next time you read some naive advice on how to control your feelings and think happy thoughts from an emotional intelligence advocate who has never worked a day in the real business world or felt passionately about an actual product or cause in his life, try to remember one thing: some things in life are worth fighting for.