I have a product manager friend who quit his job at a fairly well known startup recently. Over beers he told me the main reason he quit was simple: the creative director of the company wanted approval of all A/B tests. His assertion was that any changes that may result in users receiving a subtly worse experience for a day could damage the user’s perception of the application. Therefore he needed to personally approve and design any A/B tests, even against as little as 1% of traffic. The creative director was a cofounder; my product manager friend was not. My friend put up with it for a while, and then quit.
I mentally contrast this to a story Mark Zuckerberg told when I heard him speak in July. Mark told us about an internal tool he is proud of which allows an individual to test a new feature against a small slice of production traffic. The goal is to allow an individual to prove his or her way is better without having to convince anyone. Compare Mark’s approach with the approach of the creative director that drove my buddy to quit. Mark’s goal is to make the individual as effective as possible – in a word, to empower them. The creative director’s goal was to maintain as much personal control as possible.
In my little corner of Zynga there was an engineering lead that exhibited a similar pattern. I would occasionally receive notifications of comments on a Github repo via e-mail that were snarky. One comment in particular stands out, it said, “I should have been asked before this went in.” If in the course of coding this particular engineering lead found something he did not like he would go find the commit in Github even if it were weeks or months old. He would then write passive aggressive comments on the offending code. This guy actually lasted alot longer than you’d expect, he was eventually stuck in a corner on an individual project.
This summer, a fellow founder (CEO) in my YC batch spoke to my cofounder and I at length about a problem he was having with his in-house designer (I did get his approval before writing about this.) This was an employee, not a founder but at a startup frequently the distinction is trivial.
The CEO wanted to run a test of a possible new product in parallel with their existing work. He wanted to use a contract designer to build a mini-site that he could then use to gauge interest for the product, without derailing his whole team. The employee was adamantly against this, as he did not want his name to be associated with inferior work. He was so adamant that he threatened to quit if the CEO used an outsource contractor to design the mini-site. The employee in question was extremely talented, and he knew it. The CEO did not want to lose him, but he knew that waiting for the designer would delay the test by at least a month. Ultimately the test was never run and the employee was asked to leave a few months later (to the great relief of the rest of the team).
I call this leadership anti-pattern the savant-snake; Savant because they tend to be extremely talented people, and snake because they undermine the capability of those around them. They effectively want to serialize all decisions being made in their sphere of concern through themselves.
The damage caused by someone like this, especially given direct control over others, is hard to overstate. They disempower everyone around them by creating a psychological barrier to innovation. My product manager friend, a talented guy, left the company. The engineering lead ended up being moved to a division where he could do no harm. The designer ended up being asked to leave after seriously damaging morale. I have even seen it contribute to burnout amongst founders in the past. The savant-snake is not to be ignored.
These people are inherently difficult to excise from the organization because they are valuable. If they weren’t extremely talented they wouldn’t be able to behave in this fashion for any significant period of time. In my experience one of the hardest decisions to make is to show an extremely talented person the door because of their impact on the company. There is no way around it, you will feel their loss. It will be painful. The only solace I can offer is that at you are controlling the situation, choosing the pain you are inflicted with, rather than sacrificing the morale of your team. My experience, though, has been that everyone breathes a sigh of relief when that savant-snake is shown the door.