HP and Apple demonstrate execs need to own up to their mistakes too

hp lets do amazingThis has been an interesting fortnight with first Mark Papermaster being fired from Apple, then Mark Hurd being ejected from Hewlett-Packard after a strange sexual harassment investigation that uncovered violations of the HP rules of employee conduct.
Mark Papermaster was the head of the iPhone and iPod division at Apple and therefore the man responsible for a lot of shenanigans that transpired in the last few months (think “stolen iPhone prototype”, for example, or “missing white iPhone 4”) culminating in the PR disaster of so-called “antennagate”, the media frenzy over antenna problems in the popular device.
As an aside, I have an iPhone 4 and don’t have any particular problems with my antenna, but it does drop calls left and right, as all my previous iPhones have also done. The iPhone 4 is a great portable computer but a mediocre phone. At best.
Meanwhile, over at my former alma-mater Hewlett-Packard (I worked there for five years, then did consulting work with Walter Hewlett afterwards), the long-slow burn of executives continues. First it was Carly Fiorina, who I’ve written about more than once on this blog, and now it’s Hurd, the guy who was brought in to “rescue” HP from the post-Fiorina doldrums. To be fair, Hurd has done a good job and HP’s prospects are good, but he also continued the evolutionary change that Fiorina started, the dismantling of the mythic HP Way that Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard had always made a core value of the company.
I don’t want to rehash it all this many years later, but will just say that it’s a long time since HP had a consumer hit and that discarding the “Next Bench” philosophy (e.g., “build things you’d want to buy”) might have not been such a bright move after all. Still, the company has good financials and is a significant player in the corporate space (though I’ll cynically suggest that’s due to the long, slow death of Sun Microsystems).
Hurd forgot that being CEO doesn’t make you immune to the requirement for ethical behavior and when he realized the Board of Directors was going to find out about his dalliance with HP contractor Jodie Fisher (the NYT coyly says “Mr. Hurd, who is married, has settled the matter with Ms. Fisher for an undisclosed sum.”), he knew he was in trouble. Instead of resigning, though, the HP Board of Directors had to give him the boot, which at this level translates into them telling him to resign.

apple jobs iphone 4 antennagate

When your boss has to apologize for your division’s design flaws, it’s never good.

I’m not alone in this interpretation of Hurd’s mistakes. Alex Dobuzinskis at Reuters says almost the same thing about Fiorina and Hurd nailing closed the coffin of the HP Way in his piece “Fiorina, Hurd: No practitioners of the HP Way“, and Ben Worthen at the Journal also writes about how “Hurd Neglected to Follow HP Way“.
Curious about Mark Papermaster’s story? The SF Chronicle reports that it was a cultural difference with Apple vs. Papermaster’s previous employer, IBM: “At the end of the day, it might have been that he didn’t have enough t-shirts and blue jeans in his closet”, an angle echoed by MacRumors, but that’s bogus. Almost always, “cultural differences” is a cover for unacceptable performance and I can’t think of a worse example of corporate embarrassment than fabled Apple’s iPhone 4 release.
What interests me about both of these situations is that in both cases the executives felt that they were immune to the consequences of their actions. Papermaster presumably watched the flame-out of the popular but flawed iPhone 4 as the media lambasted Apple for its shortcomings, secure that it wasn’t his fault, really. Hurd was dating Fisher — and putting their rendezvous on the corporate expense account — without even a second thought too. Mark, you make millions of dollars, you couldn’t spring for dinner at Il Fornaio or similar out of your own wallet?
I am glad both of these guys were fired, actually. Not for their careers, but because it reaffirms that all of us, whether a lowly assembly line worker or a senior executive, are responsible for our actions and need to make the smartest and most ethical decisions we can make, and that we have to live with the consequences of these actions. It’s also not a surprise that both guys were fired rather than realizing their error and resigning.
Life gives us challenges. The test is how you deal with them.

3 comments on “HP and Apple demonstrate execs need to own up to their mistakes too

  1. Hi Dave,
    Personally, there is some truth to what you speak, but Steve hired Mark, wooed him away, and then fired him. Steve bears a lot more of this responsibility here than Mark does (51% to 49% maybe?). Having engineers sleeping on cots in the workplace to “fix the problem.” Sheesh.

  2. Totally disagree with you, Kevin. That’s the point of my piece, really, that it’s not about “cultural fit” but about accomplishments, and Papermaster did a miserable job with the iPhone 4 launch. “Buck stops here” and all that.
    And engineers sleeping on cots? Sounds like the tech industry business as usual, and, again, they decided to stay part of the Apple team too.

  3. Dave, wasn’t disagreeing with Papermaster’s “accomplishments” and his failure, but pointing out about who’s responsibility it was about the decision. Read this:
    “It was Mr. Jobs, rather than Mr. Papermaster, who decided to move forward with the development of the phone even though the company was aware of the risks of the antenna design as much as a year ago, according to people familiar with the matter.”
    It would seem that Papermaster told all of the execs about the issue because they all knew about it, that was his responsibility to tell them and the results achieved based on time (enough time to get it done and correctly/better) and process (defined by the execs) to get it done. He had failed to “get it done,” but it’s also a leadership failure here.
    Apple leaders “accepted” his failure and went with the decision. Why wasn’t Papermaster fired when they knew of his failure to “get it done”? Because Apple decided to go with it “as is” and got burned by customers and the industry and therefore he became the fall guy for their failures. If customers had accepted the problem Papermaster would have stayed and moved on, but because Apple got burned with this one, someone had to leave.
    Thanks for the discussion Dave.

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