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Posts Tagged ‘Apple

Admit Nothing: Debunking the Infallible Leader

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There is a phenomenon in leadership, known as the “Reality Distortion Field.” The term describes a level of charismatic self-assurance so overwhelming and nigh delusional that no criticism can penetrate it, and those in its path are powerless to withstand the hype.

In this sphere, any ambition is attainable, every idea a masterpiece and any setback a negligible distraction. Such overconfidence might seem absurd on paper, but in practice it is embraced as an exceptional quality. But not everyone can get ahead simply by putting perception in a chokehold.

The term’s origin should come as no surprise: Apple drones coined it in the early 1980s to illustrate the belligerent influence of Steve Jobs. “In his presence,” as one minion put it, “reality is malleable. He can convince anyone of practically anything.” If complex tasks were scheduled in an unrealistic time frame, Jobs deemed it eminently doable; should evidence show Steve was wrong, he bent the facts to prove himself right.

Over time, claims of “Reality Distortion” have been applied to other Silicon Valley honchos. Apple’s chief rival, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, is most notable for displays of boundless, sweaty confidence that somehow captivate industry audiences. So too is Larry Ellison, who has recently taken to harshly doling out unsolicited criticism of peers in the press (who willingly take his word as gospel).

Given their collective achievements, one might think that there’s something to the obstinate approach. In truth, they serve as outliers. Without true knowledge and ability, a cocksure leader is a liability.

Recall LifeLock CEO Todd Davis: So sure was he of his company’s identity theft protection system, Davis freely listed his social security number in television and print ads. Certainly some employees must have expressed misgivings about such a bold claim, yet Davis laid down the gauntlet. As a result, his identity was stolen thirteen times, embarrassing the company and leaving a shameful trail of fraudulent debt in his wake.

Davis assumed his confidence would carry the product. But while leaders should inspire faith, the “Reality Distortion” mindset goes a step further—even an inkling of doubt signifies weakness. This is seen in the political arena, where candidates attract slurs like “flip-flopper” over slight shifts in policy. Some contenders will stick to a line in the hope they can alter voter perceptions, no matter the risk of being caught, or the cost to their credibility.

New York gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino is one such stubborn figure, campaigning on a “kitchen sink strategy” of persistent accusations against his opponent, Andrew Cuomo. When Paladino claimed to know of marital infidelities by Cuomo, the press asked for proof. He belligerently demurred, until eventually admitting that his allegation was hypothetical and had no substance—only to resume the lie in subsequent television appearances. For his arrogant zeal, Paladino’s prospects are on the decline. Recent polls show him trailing Cuomo, with the gap ever widening as Election Day approaches.

Leading through sheer force of overbearing will also carries a particularly undesirable side-effect: Volatility. Intimidation and abuse rank high as motivation for staff to fall in step with one’s ineffable vision, and screaming tantrums are not unheard of in these environments. Steve Jobs is himself given to rages that drive some to the verge of tears, and drive down the happiness index in Cupertino.

In his 2007 book The No Asshole Rule, author Robert Sutton deems Jobs’ effectiveness as an exception to the eponymous rule, yet acknowledges the Apple leader’s reputation for humiliating staff. Sutton otherwise promotes a prevailing wisdom that puts employee satisfaction first: Happy workers are productive and creative workers, while abuse drives up employee turnover (and potential lawsuits).

As much as budding leaders may wish to become a Jobs or Ellison, it’s not their hubris that should be emulated. Whether you attribute it to a unique confluence of factors or simply uncanny mutant powers, success didn’t come from their willfulness alone. Ultimately, they possessed intelligence and skill. Blustering may get you through the door, but ability is what builds great computers, great products and great companies.
— Alex Tuttle,


Written by A.A. Somebody

October 20, 2010 at 8:13 am

Down in the Valley: How Tech Leader Policies Limited Recruiting

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Google. Apple. Intel. Adobe. Intuit. Pixar. Each of these names is known to elicit superlatives for innovation and leadership. Each is also counted among the most desirable employers of Silicon Valley. And yet, as a U.S. Justice Department investigation has revealed, working for one of them could mean your career prospects could be severely limited for the rest.

On Friday, the aforementioned gang of six collectively consented to a Justice Department order to cease a series of clandestine no-poaching pacts. The department alleges that, through much of the past decade, the implicated parties kept do-not-call lists to mark each other’s staff as off-limits for job offer solicitation. In turn, those recruitment restrictions hampered opportunities for rising talent at top companies.

As the government’s resulting settlement describes, “The agreements eliminated a significant form of competition to attract highly skilled employees, and overall diminished competition to the detriment of affected employees.”

For tech professionals, the existence of such policies can only be disheartening. It’s difficult enough to soldier on in the IT field’s current state, as the rise of mergers and acquisitions threatens to consolidate the industry—and squeeze out workers in the ensuing layoffs. To know that employers actively avoid certain candidates can quash not just advancement or competitive salaries, but the perceived value of one’s own accrued skills and experience.

Moreover, Silicon Valley is a climate that thrives on migration. For decades, the industry has been characterized by the ability of its workforce to roam amongst market leaders and scrappy startups alike. It is this viral spreading of knowledge and talent that bolsters progress. The actions of Google et al risked stifling that dynamic, at a time when new ideas were so vital to the market amid a dire recession.

But even after striking a blow against the major players, this may only scratch the surface. In announcing its settlement with the six conspirators, the D.O.J. said it “continues to investigate other similar no solicitation agreements,” raising questions as to the scope of this practice. It may be minimal: while leaders such as Microsoft and IBM were implicated at the investigation’s inception, they were ultimately omitted from the settlement. But given the industry’s interwoven dependencies among firms, it’s not hard to suspect that many alliances have included deals to prevent poaching.

A statement by Google (thus far the only party to publicly respond) bodes particular ill: Assistant counsel Amy Lambert assures on its Public Policy Blog that Google “abandoned our ‘no cold calling’ policy in late 2009.” But by acknowledging “a number of other tech companies had similar ‘no cold call’ policies,” she seems to imply that the company followed an established trend, rather than marching to its own drummer. That’s not what you come to expect of an innovator.
— Alex Tuttle,

Career Lessons From the iPhone 4: How NOT to Deal With Problems

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Apple iPhone 4

AP Photo/Jason DeCrow, file

If you had to name a company that symbolizes exemplary customer experience, superb brand management and cutting edge products, Apple wouldn’t be too far from the top of most people’s lists.

Which is why it’s been so surprising to find the company squandering its reputation for all these things over a relatively minor flaw with the new iPhone. In fact, the way the company has dealt with the issue can be viewed as a case study of sorts for what not to do in adverse situations.

The issue: signal problems with the recently released iPhone 4, which can cause the phone to lose service if held a certain way. The obvious solution: “don’t hold it that way.” Which is fine, except that Apple is charging significant amounts of money for the phone. Simply telling customers, “you’re using it wrong”—as Steve Jobs initially did—doesn’t quite cut it.

Perhaps realizing this, the company admitted that there was a problem with signal deterioration—the admission coming just a couple of days after Jobs’ impolitic response. The problem, according to Apple on this occasion, was faulty software.

If the folks at Apple thought the issue had been addressed sufficiently, they were dead wrong: tech journalists just wouldn’t leave it alone, eventually forcing an admission from the company that the hardware was the issue. Even there, however, the issue hasn’t been put to rest. Apple hasn’t suggested any kind of plan for dealing with the problem, beyond suggesting that customers either “not hold the phone in a manner that causes the hand to touch that lower left hand corner, or purchase a $30 bumper from Apple which would solve the problem.”

That led to something of a damning report from Consumer Reports, whose engineers recently finished testing the device. Their conclusion: that “Apple needs to come up with a permanent—and free—fix for the antenna problem before we can recommend the iPhone 4.”

That is a huge blow for a company that prides itself on the design of its products. When your business revolves around making the sleekest, best-functioning devices on the market, it’s damning indeed to have reviewers recommend applying duct tape to ensure those devices work properly. It’s worse still when you’ve built a reputation for delighting your customers only to suggest that they’re at fault when they find an issue with your latest product, or spend yet more money to address it.

The trajectory of this issue so far for Apple hasn’t exactly been the stuff that great companies are made of. First, the phone managed to make it to market with this issue, meaning it was either insufficiently tested or assumed to not be a problem. Following the discovery of the issue, the company pointed the finger of blame first at its customers, then at a software issue, and even at AT&T’s network. Only reluctantly did Apple own the problem, and since then they still haven’t come up with any kind of fix or recompense that suggests they’re thinking more about their customers than their bottom line.

Of course, it’s important not to overstate the significance of this: the signal problem is a relatively minor flaw that won’t affect the majority of iPhone users. But the way the company has chosen to deal with it is instructive, and suggests it still has things to learn on both the tech and the customer relations side. In the meantime, the rest of us can once again look to Apple as an example—only this time of what not to emulate.

Should Company Employees Use a Rival’s Products?

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What do you do when you work for a company that produces something, but you prefer a competitor’s product? Seem like an unlikely scenario? Let’s be more specific: imagine you work for Microsoft, but you prefer Apple’s iPhone as your portable communications device. Should that be a problem, or should you be free to choose as you see fit?

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is quite clear on the subject: at a recent company retreat, he (almost literally) told employees that his policy is “Work for Ford, drive a Ford.” (Partly that’s because he grew up in Detroit with a father who worked for Ford. Partly, though, it’s likely because “work for Microsoft, use a cell phone that runs on Microsoft’s cell phone software” has slightly less snap, crackle and pop to it.)

Other Microsoft executives have apparently followed suit, with one, according to the WSJ, having gone as far as destroying his iPhone in a blender upon joining the company. That’s left employees who like their iPhones in something of a bind, with many feeling that they have to hide their iPhone usage to avoid falling out of favor with superiors. Further complicating the picture is the fact that some units at Microsoft actually make products that run on Apple technology.

Whether the situation’s any different over at Apple HQ, I’m not entirely sure, but I am reminded of a recent interview with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, in which he touted the Google Android as the best smartphone on the market, and confessed to toting around products from all of Apple’s rivals as a means of keeping in touch with what they were up to. Presumably that list also includes phones that run on Microsoft platforms.

I’m curious as to what other examples there are of  companies trying to prevent employees from using rival products–either as a matter of policy or by frowning upon the practice informally, as Microsoft seems to be doing (for now). Feel free to share any examples you’ve experienced or know of—use the comments field or find us on Twitter. While you’re at it, why not take our poll on the subject?

All told, my take on the subject would be as follows: when your employees are preferring a rival’s products over your own, that’s probably a sign that you should focus on making your own products better, rather than trying to restrict usage of your rival’s.

Written by Phil Stott

March 16, 2010 at 11:10 am

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