Sinofsky’s departure from Microsoft nearly mirrors Forstall’s move away from Apple. Both of them played key roles in Windows (7 & 8) and iOS (1 to 6) as leading visionaries and process driven leaders. Like it or not, both of them were control freaks and marginally psychotic in their approaches to leadership. But this was what made them special and this is a common question in management whether be it at corporate levels or even at home or in school.
I believe working with a Sinofsky or Forstall styled personality is not new to most people. Sure, the ones you have worked with do not hold the same high positions or draw the same salaries – but their personalities are the same. You have this boss that wants control of every single step you take. Or a colleague that needs to butt his nose into areas that are clearly marked under your responsibility. Or it could be school when a team mate wants to have a say, the final say, in every decision the team makes. You may think little of it, especially if its a school project or a small temporary team at work, but these are the same characters that will drive people crazy and ruin the team if given time and space to exist.
These are the same characters that will drive people crazy and ruin the team if given time and space to exist.
We grow up in stages and our characters evolve over time. An individual’s character is influenced by the people he meets and the contextual surroundings he grew in. Personally, I was blessed to be continuously in leadership positions ever since the age of 7 till now. I was brought up as a single child by parents who believed that it was good to expose me to adult decisions from a young age. I learnt budgeting, planning and how decisions were made as young as 6. It was this initial decision made by my parents that created confidence and the desire to take charge and lead from the front. In a sense, it displayed itself in school as I was granted positions without asking for them. This pattern simply repeated itself may it be in school or with friends, in the army or in my jobs, also with family and loved ones.
Having a very clear picture of what I wanted to achieve was a double edged sword.
I was able to get things done – quickly, efficiently and with precision. But not all is fine and dandy. In many ways, having a very clear picture of what I wanted to achieve was a double edged sword. Strong confidence mixed with a sufficiently successful track record often spills into overconfidence and arrogance especially at a young age. As much as I was lauded for my characteristics, I began to face the duality of a Type A styled personality. There were those who were complimentary of my actions and others who downright hated my character. I remember a set of notes I received on graduation in Primary school that could be easily categorized to the aforementioned categories. I wasn’t bothered at that point. After all, I was Mr. Fix It. I made things work and I got the job done.
It dawned on me two years later that leadership was only not about a perfectly optimized team. Leadership was about winning the hearts of people. If leadership was about ruthless efficiency, then a completely mechanized team would be the solution to any firm’s problem. An economist or engineer that was able to solve whichever optimization problem at hand would be the perfect leader. But that is not the case for one simple reason.
People are not machines and solving problems are not the end goal. In many ways, razor sharp focus on problem solving often achieves solid results at the cost of alienating almost everyone around you. In the first few years, I went down that route. I had a vision of how things should be done but I ignored how people would feel about it. And that was a costly error that in some ways I wished I didn’t so strictly adhered to that route.
It was often comforting to look at the results and go ‘hey it went well after all’. But there’s one huge thing that becomes more important as you work with bigger teams and people that may very well be much more capable than you are – we need people.
The assumption that Type A personalities take is that they have the best ideas or at least the most complete ones. Our solutions may not be the most ideal but we are sure that we can take the team through the paces and if needs be, carry the team across the finishing line. This is an critically dangerous assumption.
This is an critically dangerous assumption.
The beauty of our species is our ability to work together and draw from unique differentiated expertise and experiences. Mankind’s advancement didn’t occur because of one man but because of the interaction of many minds focused on driving us forward. This same mechanism must be found in teams.
Around the late 1990s, there was a movement (at least in school for me) where leaders were no longer considered leaders but facilitators. In some ways, leaders were considered servants as well. This was absolutely baffling to me. But it made sense as I began to work with diverse characters.
The tiny advantage of my early head start quickly gave way as I met people that were so much more capable than I was. Yet, I was tasked to lead them. To bring them under the umbrella of a team and to get the job done. The advantage of ‘I know better’ was well and truly gone. Leadership thus gave way to management.
My journey as I grew up led me from a dictatorial type of leader to one that moved towards a more people orientated approach. I still wanted to ensure that end results were not compromised but I had to find ways to motivate the team by adjusting both intrinsic and extrinsic incentives so that their goals were well aligned with the team’s.
Of course, it is foolish to believe that a good people orientated approach is the solution to all things. There’s no silver bullet basically because people and task requirements are diverse in orders of magnitude. As always, the way forward is an approach that best fits job requirements.
Forstall’s appointment as iOS head made sense when the team was new and basically directionless. Apple needed a leader that could pull the team together and drive them towards a single goal. Because of the infancy of the project, Forstall’s rather controversial tactics were tolerated. In fact, they were needed.
Because of the infancy of the project, Forstall’s rather controversial tactics were tolerated. In fact, they were needed.
The same goes with Sinofsky. The movement to Windows 8 from 7 was a big bold push. It was ridiculously daring and it required an equally insane man at the helm to steer the ship through crazy waters. Sinfosky, as described by those who know him, was divisive at best and psychotic at worst. He would set members against each other just to ensure that the team finally fell in line with what he saw. Windows 8 is a forward looking vision but questions remain about its execution. Many at Microsoft felt that the big jump to Windows 8 could have been made smoother. The jump is jarring especially to less tech savy users. Sinofsky was doing exactly what Type A leaders do. His vision was right but his execution was to force it no matter what it took.
Sinofsky was doing exactly what Type A leaders do. His vision was right but his execution was to force it no matter what it took.
Apple and Microsoft made no mistakes in appointing Forstall and Sinofsky. They were the right men for the right jobs at that point in time. What is more important is that both firms made the correct calls to remove such figures the moment they crossed their use-by dates.
Balance & Flexibility
Leaders that are able to keep a team running healthily for an extended period of time are those who are able to swap modes and adapt to the situation accordingly. Those that are rigid and are affixed on only a certain world view will have only short spans of usefulness.
Not everyone can be flexible, but having an open mind and giving adaptation a chance would be a skill that is far more important than simply getting the job done.
Everyone of us are managers. We have a set of responsibilities no matter who we are. Some are CEOs, some are home makers and some might feel that they are in the bottom-most slot of the hierarchy Whichever position we find ourselves in, there’s always some facet of life that we have to manage.
More often than not, we have to do so with people, for people.