ND Expert Edward Conlon: Even senior leaders need to mind their people skills

Author: Carol Elliott

Steven Sinofsky’s resignation as the president of Microsoft’s Windows and Windows Live operations may have several causes, including concerns over the launch of Windows 8. But some accounts say his personality was at least partly to blame.

This raises the question: Should having an abrasive personality be reason enough to topple a corporate leader?

Yes, says University of Notre Dame Management Professor Edward J. Conlon, an expert in corporate leadership and author of a book on ethical leadership, “Getting It Right: Notre Dame on Leadership and Judgment in Business.”

“Senior managers such as Sinofsky have a general responsibility to the overall enterprise,” said Conlon, associate dean for Graduate Studies at Mendoza College of Business and Edward Frederick Sorin Professor of Management at the University of Notre Dame. “They are expected to work with other senior managers, as a team, to set overall strategy and direction, and to participate in decisions that influence the overall enterprise.

“Senior managers who lack interpersonal skills for that role cannot function well in top management teams and may not be viewed as a value-adding asset outside of their own division. Unless they prove to be indispensable drivers of profit for their divisions, they are subject to replacement. I suspect that the combination of disappointment over Windows 8 and the difficulties others were having with him at the senior level led to his departure.

“We know from decades of management research that senior executives, universally, perform certain roles, all requiring communication and interpersonal skills and all requiring interaction with people. A manager who lacks the ability to listen well, speak and write clearly, interpret situations with respect to the measure of empathy or assertiveness required and act with both confidence and humility will not be as able to perform the wide range of senior management roles as well as one who does. By all accounts, Sinofsky had some deficits.”

Regarding Windows 8, Conlon adds that issues surrounding its launch also directly reflect on Sinofsky’s leadership style.

As is the case in most large, complex business organizations, senior managers at Microsoft add value in a multiplicity of ways, Conlon says. “First and foremost, they have responsibility for a share of the profits (or losses) experienced by the company. For Sinofsky, this amounted to profits or losses directly assigned to the Windows operating system. The next generation of Windows 8, versions of which would power microcomputers, pads and smartphones, was Sinofsky’s responsibility. The product missed its scheduled launch date (Aug. 8, 2012) by months, and many of the early reviews compared it to the failed Vista operating system, with the recommendation that users wait until version 9 to upgrade. As Windows is the cash cow of the company, this as you can imagine might be viewed as (actual or expected) unacceptable performance in a core indicator."

Contact: Edward J. Conlon, 574-631-9295, Edward.J.Conlon.6@nd.edu