Back when I was tomev at Microsoft (1992-1994),
billg managed to a large degree by bullying. Even in conversation, btw, people at Microsoft
were known by their email names. I
didn’t report directly to billg; but, during much of the time I was there, I
worked for mikemap (Mike Maples), who reported to billg, had responsibility for
all the products, and was part of the boop. Boop stood for billg plus the office of the president (real presidents
didn’t last very long there). The oop consisted
of steveb (Steve
Ballmer) and mikemap. Major decisions were sometimes made by the
Microsoft was a fairly flat organization at that time although it
already had 10,000 employees. That meant
that I and the other product managers got to spend a fair amount of time either
doing reviews for billg or, sometimes, bringing issues to the boop. Presenting to billg and surviving a
presentation to billg were key success skills in the company. Billg rarely used postive feedback as a
motivational tool; he found the stick more effective than the carrot although
options, which were then skyrocketing, WERE a very effective carrot.
So you’re in there presenting your product plan to billg, steveb, and
mikemap. Billg typically has his eyes
closed and he’s rocking back and forth. He could be asleep; he could be thinking about something else; he could
be listening intently to everything you’re saying. The trouble is all are possible and you don’t
know which. Obviously, you have to
present as if he were listening intently even though you know he isn’t looking
at the PowerPoint slides you spent so much time on.
At some point in your presentation billg will say “that’s the
dumbest fucking idea I’ve heard since I’ve been at Microsoft.” He looks like he means it. However, since you knew he was going to say
this, you can’t really let it faze you. Moreover, you can’t afford to look fazed; remember: he’s a bully.
“What do you disagree with, Bill?” you ask as assertively as you
can. He tells you. Maybe it’s the plan for user interface; maybe
it’s the product positioning; maybe it’s the technical approach you’re taking
to a problem or your evaluation of the enemy (competition). If you see that your dead wrong – you may be,
he’s very smart – best to admit it immediately and move on. But, if he’s wrong – which is also often the
case – then you CAN’T give in. You will
be just as much blamed for doing the wrong thing because billg told you to as
you will be if you did it all on your own. This is the moment of truth for a Microsoft manager.
“Bill,” you say, “I know you made a billion dollars yesterday; I
know you’re on the cover of Fortune;
I know you can probably code this whole application in Visual Basic over the
weekend; but you’re wrong.” And you tell him why and how you know you’re
right. You have to do this so you do.
You get no positive feedback. Billg looks at you coldly. “Go
on,” he says. You do just that. You don’t go back and give more arguments for
the point you made; you just continue. You’ve also just passed a big test – if you turn out to be right.
Some people flourished in this trial by fire atmosphere. In fact, that is exactly what billg was
doing. As smart as he is, he had no way to
know most of the time whether the person presenting to him was right or wrong
(unless their logic was obviously confused in which case they deserved whatever
happened to them). So he tested us. Since you knew you were likely to be tested
on anything, you really did think long and hard about what you were doing and
what you were presenting. You had to be
really tough to bluff although it happened. And you worked doubly hard afterwards to make sure that what you just
presented so confidently actually came to pass.
Two problems with this approach: one is that kinder and gentler people, who may be still be very smart, get
stomach aches and other unpleasant symptoms when they gave to confront
bullying. Microsoft lost out on some
people who could have contributed but couldn’t take this kind of heat. Second
problem is that the bullying gets emulated down the line. There was nothing quite as absurd as a
newly-hired college graduate thinking he could be as smart or rich as billg if
he could only manage to be as rude.
Subject continued in Should
billg Stop Bullying?
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