'Polarizing' Sinofsky Departs Microsoft

If the recent departures of two tech execs are any indication, getting along with others is still a marketable skill in the corporate sandbox. Microsoft announced yesterday that the executive who oversaw the development and rollout of Windows 8, Steven Sinofsky, is leaving the company with nary a formal period of passing along his wisdom and counsel.

He’s following on the heels of Apple’s mobile software chief, Scott Forstall, who was similarly tagged with the “divisive” label when it was announced two weeks ago that his tenure at Apple would be confined to advising CEO Tim Cook through the end of the year. 

Sinofsky is “said to be a polarizing figure who alienated many other members of Microsoft’s senior leadership team,” writes Nick Wingfield in the New York Times. “For that reason, he was viewed by many insiders as an unlikely replacement for [CEO Steve] Ballmer, one whose elevation to the top job would have created waves of dissent within the company.”



Julie Larson-Green, a 19-year Microsoft veteran profiled here by The Verge’s Sean Hollister, will lead all its Windows software and hardware engineering. “Larson-Green might just have the right style to unite Windows and Windows Phone together while avoiding the company's well-documented internal politics,” he concludes.

Tami Reller is taking over responsibility for the Windows business, while retaining her posts as chief financial officer and chief marketing officer, the company also announced.

“It is a little surprising to see a departure of someone at this level in charge of so many products with such immediacy, with no transition period,” Gartner analyst Michael Gartenberg tells Bloomberg’s Dina Bass. “Microsoft is going to enter another period of management transition.”

That said, the speculation is swirling “as to the ‘real’ reasons for the move,” Mary Jo Foley writes on ZDNet’s “All About Microsoft” blog, with a number of out-of-the-know commentators suggesting “poor early sales of Windows 8 and/or the Surface RT were to blame.” Foley says she gives “more credence to the politics theory,” pointing out that CNET’s Jay Greene’s recent profile of Sinofsky “noted the Windows chief had sparred with a number of senior Microsoft managers, and even CEO Steve Ballmer.”

In that piece, Greene writes that although “brass-knuckle tactics are nothing new at Microsoft…. Sinofsky's critics say he's elevated those battles to a new level, thriving by marginalizing rivals while running the company's most profitable businesses, Windows and Office.”

Sinofsky’s technical and managerial brilliance –- at least in terms of getting the things he is responsible for on the right track in a timely matter –- do not seem to be in doubt. But Greene’s profile suggests that it may be time to level the silo mentality and temper the “nastiness, true spitefulness” that are notoriously woven into the culture of Microsoft. 

“Increasingly, the company is connecting products across divisions, letting consumers, for example, pick songs over Xbox-connected home entertainment systems using Windows 8 tablets. It's a world that requires the kind of cross-division teamwork that Sinofsky's critics say he lacks,” Greene writes.

Ballmer says in a statement and email to employees that he is “grateful for the many years of work that Steven has contributed to the company,” but goes on to stress the organization’s need to have its gears in mesh. “To continue this success it is imperative that we continue to drive alignment across all Microsoft teams, and have more integrated and rapid development cycles for our offerings.”

Calling Sinofsky’s departure “stunning and unexpected,” in his “Supersite for Windows” blog, Paul Thurrott points out that Sinofsky himself “denounces any suggestion that he was ousted from the company or that the timing of this departure is related in any way to poor sales of Windows 8 or Surface” in his own email to employees. In fact, Sinofsky peremptorily dismisses all “speculation or theories,” such as ours, and says his decision to leave is “personal and private.”

Still, “my gut feeling is that Sinofsky simply ostracized too many people in and out of Microsoft,” Thurrott writes.

With Harvard Business School professor Marco Iansiti, Sinofsky co-authored a book, One Strategy: Organization, Planning, and Decision Making, that’s drawn from his internal Microsoft blog “where he communicated some of the management processes the team put to work while developing a 4,000 person, multi-year project -- Microsoft Windows 7,” according to promotional material for the book. “One Strategy shares the hard-won insights you can use to successfully make the leap from strategy to execution.”

Getting it out is one thing. Getting along with others is something else entirely. It’s indeed a social network out there in the real world, too.

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