There’s a lot of perspectives on if and why Reddit is in its death throes right now (Duncan and Eric at SiliconANGLE have been doing a good job covering the story). I’m personally of the opinion that they bought themselves a stay of execution by releasing Pao, but only time will tell if it pulls them from the death spiral.
One particularly poignant opinion I read this evening came from Chuq Von Rospach, a blogger and community manager for Cisco.
“For a person in Pao’s position, not knowing how your own system and software works is a massive fail. Not bringing in someone in PR to help you craft the message and get it posted appropriately is a big fail. There were organizational failures that other parts of Reddit let this happen without someone hauling her into a room and saying “you need help. Let’s figure this out” is a big fail; or perhaps they tried and she wouldn’t listen. Either way, huge failure. That Pao initially tried to spin this in the press instead of work this out with the community is a fail that’s a combination of her background working through the politics of executive boardrooms and her VC background — but it’s still a fail. All of this leads to the inevitable conclusion that she was the wrong person to be leading Reddit (and now, she no longer is), and that the board made a bad hire bringing her in.”
Without naming names, there are a lot of organizations that can benefit from the object lesson that is Ellen Pao’s Reddit right now.
Putting a manager or executive in place that doesn’t understand the systems the company is built on will result in serious, often irreparable damage to the company. What tends to happen when you have a tone deaf manager or executive is extreme loss of morale internal to the company, and the subordinates just sort of … let the executive fail. If the company itself is lucky, then it won’t mean its demise.
Tech companies have a hard road to go down in this respect. In this modern age, any scaling product company worth being passionate about has an esoteric knowledge set – and those who understand the product the best aren’t always the best managers. I’ve seen it in every company I’ve ever worked for, though, to one degree or another: when a company scales to a certain point, they bring in a non-Subject Matter Expert to manage a department, and because of a combination of unearned arrogance and unwillingness (or inability) to learn, they start making tone-deaf decisions that lead to the demise of the product and the morale of the team.
Monty Python’s John Cleese actually talked about this on a recent (and infamous) appearance on TheCUBE:
“In order to know how good you are at something requires almost exactly the abilities that it does to be good at that thing in the first place,” Cleese said, explaining the idea behind the self assessment and the Dunning-Kruger effect. “So if you’re absolutely no good at something, you lack exactly the abilities that you need to know that you’re no f—ing good at it. And that explains the planet better than anything else I’ve ever come across.”
If you’re a director or an executive, this can be a difficult but not impossible chasm to cross, but one worth paying attention to if you want to have a healthy company and the support of your troops.