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Steven Sinofsky, who last week lost his job as head of Microsoft’s high-profile Windows group, reportedly clashed with executives. (Scott Eells/Bloomberg)
Steven Sinofsky, who last week lost his job as head of Microsoft’s high-profile Windows group, reportedly clashed with executives. (Scott Eells/Bloomberg)

Leadership

Leaders who don’t play nicely get kicked out of the sandbox Add to ...

In this age of collaboration, senior executives are learning that if they don’t follow the simple lessons they learned in kindergarten they risk getting thrown out of the sandbox.

Share everything. Play fair. Don’t take things that aren’t yours. The advice in Robert Fulghum’s popular book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, has more resonance than ever in the working world.

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And executives who can’t master the skills of the sandbox may see their career aspirations buried in the dirt.

Last week, after 23 years, Microsoft Corp. cut ties with Steven Sinofsky, the brain behind its successful launch only weeks earlier of its Windows 8 operating software and its new Surface tablet. His departure was immediate – and unexpected. Reports said that Mr. Sinofsky, although admired for his ability to efficiently run the complex Windows division, could be abrasive and often clashed with other executives, including Microsoft chief executive Steven Ballmer.

The events surrounding Mr. Sinofsky’s departure closely match the scenario of last month’s announcement that Scott Forstall, who helped develop Apple Inc.’s successful iOS software, would leave the tech giant next year. Mr. Forstall’s personality was also said to be divisive and led to disagreements with executives, even though many also thought he was a software genius.

It used to be that executives could be as nasty as they wanted, as long as they boosted the bottom line. But being a heavy-handed leader doesn’t work in the fast-moving tech industry.

“Creative ideas rarely happen in a vacuum,” said Greg Chung-Yan, an associate professor of industrial and organizational psychology at the University of Windsor in Ontario.

“People have to share ideas. They have to take risks, and they have to share ideas that might sound stupid,” he said. “So if a person is not well liked and can be severe – and people are afraid of them – I don’t think people would be willing to take those risks.”

Nor will a company’s board have confidence in the management skills of a candidate if most people who work with the executive don’t dislike him or her, Mr. Chung-Yan added.

Research has shown that people value a colleague or boss to whom they can easily relate, said Glen Whyte, a professor of organizational behaviour and human resources management with at University or Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “There’s a very interesting dichotomy that has been researched. … Do people prefer associating with a competent jerk or the lovable fool? The lovable fool wins hands down,” he said.

“It’s very clear that people skills – the ability to play well with others, the ability to be a great team player – these days is at a massive premium,” Prof. White said.

Businesses now make it clear to recruitment firms that they’re looking for the person with the right skills, but also someone who will bring a positive vibe to their team, said Jessica Sherin, a senior consultant of leadership solutions at Knightsbridge Human Capital Management in Toronto.

“What we’re finding is collaboration, not as a buzzword but as a genuine driver of results, [is heard] more and more often from our clients,” she said.

By all accounts, both Mr. Sinofsky and Mr. Forstall have major technical abilities, but being technically proficient is no longer enough at the senior level, Ms. Sherin said. “Work becomes so interdependent that if you can’t find some way to add value to your peers, you’re not going to stay around, even if you bring huge technical strength.”

But that doesn’t mean that workers need to be saccharine-sweet and never disagree, said Prof. Whyte. Employers still see value in staff debating major issues of substance, and that won’t mark someone as “disruptive.” But personal attacks will.

“When the dynamic changes from us versus the problem to me versus you, one solution is that somebody’s got to go,” he said.

These “soft skills” are high on the agenda at business schools now, said Prof. Whyte. Students are graded on team work and there are courses to build negotiation, leadership and problem-solving skills.

CEOs who want a more collaborate corporate culture have to look inward, Ms. Sherin said. They must examine how staff are paid and how bonuses and rewards are awarded to ensure those go to collaborators and team players. Senior leaders also need evaluate hiring practices, the questions being asked in interviews and the selection criteria. It helps to have peers involved so managers can get a sense of how well a new hire will mesh with staff.

“It’s not that everybody needs to be best friends, but you need to play in the sandbox and at least not kick dirt in other people’s faces, because people will only let themselves be covered in dirt so many times,” Ms. Sherin said.

“And you never know when one of your peers is going to be the next CEO.”

Follow on Twitter: @gilllivingston

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