It’s a High-Wire Act When You’re a Highly Talented Pain in the Rear

See update below

Remember that debacle Apple had when they replaced Google maps with their own mapping program on the new iPhone?

It’s a problem that caused a lot of grief at the world’s most highly valued company, and it led to CEO Tim Cook issuing an apology for the problem.

That’s not particularly unusual for Apple, because Steve Jobs occasionally apologized in the past for things the company didn’t get quite right the first time around.

But, the chatter over the map  problem persists. Just last weekend, this Tweet used Hurricane Sandy to poke fun at Apple for the iPhone maps foul-up yet again:

Where a career goes off the rails

Yes, Steve Jobs used to apologize for such things, but he’s gone, Tim Cook is now in charge, and the Apple culture seems to be changing — so much so that the company asked Scott Forstall, the executive in charge of Apple maps, “to leave the company after he refused to sign his name to a letter apologizing for shortcomings in Apple’s new mapping service, according to people familiar with the matter” and reported in The Wall Street Journal.

According to The Journal:

The incident was the latest clash between Mr. Forstall, who oversaw Apple’s mobile software unit, and other executives at the company. It led to one of the most significant management shake-ups in Apple’s recent history and its most sweeping changes under Chief Executive Tim Cook. …

Mr. Forstall’s departure came after mounting tension with members of Apple’s executive ranks. For years, senior executives had complained that he wasn’t cooperative and showed off his close relationship with Apple’s late co-founder Steve Jobs.

Without Mr. Jobs to mediate, tensions between Mr. Forstall and other executives built, according to the people familiar with the matter.

The 43-year-old Mr. Forstall recently told people that there is no “decider” now that Mr. Jobs is gone, according to a person briefed on the conversation.”

Here’s where Scott Forstall’s Apple career went off the rails: The Journal says that, “In deciding how to manage the crisis, Mr. Forstall argued that the company could address the outcry without apologizing, as Apple had done when it shipped iPhones with faulty antennas a few years ago, one of these people said. Mr. Cook and others disagreed, these people said. Mr. Cook signed his name to the apology instead.”

Have you seen this behavior on the job?

Fortune does a nice job wrapping up a lot of analysis and commentary over Forstall’s departure (The long knives at Apple: What the experts are saying), but the elements are all pretty basic and probably something you have seen in your own workplace at one time or another:

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  • Highly talented, pain-in-the-ass employee doesn’t work well with others but is a favorite of the CEO.
  • Suddenly, CEO protecting highly talented but pain-in-the-ass employee is no longer the CEO.
  • Highly talented, pain-in-the-ass employee, suddenly left without someone to put up with him and protect him from his peers, fails to see that things are now different and continues to rub everyone the wrong way.
  • New CEO uses big screw up in highly talented, pain-in-the-ass employee’s area to hold him accountable.
  • Highly talented, pain-in-the-ass employee fails to heed new CEO’s request and essentially blows him off.
  • New CEO uses blow off as an opportunity to drop kick highly talented, pain-in-the-ass employee — who is now also a highly expendable employee — out the door.
  • Highly talented, pain-in-the-ass employee’s peers cheer as he finally gets a long awaited and highly publicized boot.

There’s a lesson here, and it’s this: people in the workplace who are highly talented but a pain-in-the-ass can only last as long as they produce at a high level. People will tolerate them — grudgingly — as long as they deliver the goods.

“Known as difficult to work with”

But, everyone is watching for that moment when they stop delivering the goods. When that happens, it’s usually game over.

This seems to be the case with Scott Forstall at Apple, because as The Journal points out, “Forstall, a 15-year Apple veteran, was a protégé of Jobs, and his name was once bandied about as a possible successor. He rose quickly at the company and earned a reputation for risk taking. But he was also known as difficult to work with, and “never fit into the culture of Apple,” said one person familiar with the matter.”

This sad tale lays out a workplace lesson worth remembering: it’s a high-wire act when you’re a pain-in-the-ass to the others you work with, and no matter how supremely talented you may be, you’re really only one screw-up away from getting kicked to the curb.

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UPDATE: The New York Times Bits blog has more details on some of the various issues that seemed to cause problems between Scott Forstall and his peers at Apple. The story says, among other things, that:

A senior Apple employee who asked not to be named said Mr. Forstall had also incurred the ire of other executives after inserting himself into product development that went beyond his role at the company. One person in touch with Apple executives said the mood of people at the company was largely positive about Mr. Forstall’s departure.

“This was better than the Giants winning the World Series,” he said. “People are really excited.”

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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