Leadership Challenges at RIM

I’m a true believer in phrase “Leadership Reflects Attitude” and when ever I see failure, be it a project or an entire company, my first thought is what kind of leaders are in charge? Not just the C level Leaders but the entire management team. What is their management and decision making styles?

The 5 traits of a good leader are:

  1. Must be a visionary
  2. Must have passion
  3. Must be a decision maker
  4. Must be a team builder
  5. Must have character.

I don’t argue that at RIM’s peak of success, their executives had these traits but something has definitely gone wrong as they scaled the organization from it’s earlier days.

Today marks yet another day of bad news for Research in Motion. As I read the news stories of delayed product launches, losses and job cuts, I looked back on another story I read back in June of 2011. It was about an open letter to the RIM executives from an employee who had lost confidence in his employer and felt he had to go public to get their attention. The stock was worth about $28.30 that day and as of this writing, one year later it’s worth about $7.60.

The letter starts off by saying that he has lost confidence in the company he works for and his passion has been sapped. He goes on to explain why and offers some ideas on how to fix it.

Now, a year later it seems to me to indicate exactly why things have gone so wrong for RIM. RIM’s failures are not unique to just them rather, many large companies that become complacent; thinking they are too big to fail share these traits. You would think that the leaders of today’s large enterprises would understand that no company is too big to fail with big banks going under and companies like Kodak going bankrupt. These big companies fail for many of the same traits of failure and poor leadership.

I’ve focused on a few key quotes from the letter that I think were interesting and very telling. This first quote sounds like a cry for help to a parent who is too focused on themselves.

“Reach out to all employees asking them on how we can make RIM better. Encourage input from ground-level teams—without repercussions—to seek out honest feedback and really absorb it.”

Culture is a companies “family” values. In most cases when a company is failing, the culture has a big part in either pushing it further into the abyss or pulling it out and turning it around.

“The culture at RIM does not allow us to speak openly without having to worry about the career-limiting effects.”

It seems that RIM, never fixed it’s culture and you can see that in the project and product launch delays and the feeling this guy had that he couldn’t talk openly with management. How can a company succeed when people fear losing their job for speaking up?

Closed doors = closed minds. Leadership that doesn’t openly invite it’s employees to challenge them and their decisions is not building a team culture. This is a trust issue as well as a ego issue. I suspect that the culture at RIM was the first big blow and the warring that the leaders should have seen and acted on. When you lose your employees, everything else will come tumbling down eventually.

“Teams still aren’t talking together properly, no one is making or can make critical decisions, all the while everyone is working crazy hours and still far behind.”

Leadership reflects attitude. If the leaders aren’t talking or sharing or inviting feedback, communication breaks down at all levels and this behaviour spreads like a wild fire. This quote tells me that no one could make decisions other than the executives and when executives need to make all the decisions, there is simply not enough time in the day to make well educated and informed decisions. The result is either bad decisions or worse, no decisions at all.

“Also an important note regarding our marketing: a product’s technical superiority does not equal desire, and therefore sales… How many Linux laptops are getting sold? How did Betamax go? My mother wants an iPad and iPhone because it is simple and appeals to her. Powerful multitasking doesn’t.”

Today’s Product management mantra is all about the end user. Focus on the user, understand them and solve problems for them. Simple equation but hard to change if the leadership doesn’t get it. RIM would mock the competition rather than try to learn from them. Seems like they were so busy mocking them, they forgot to see why they were doing so well.

“we simply must stop shipping incomplete products that aren’t ready for the end user.”

In the letter, the employee says they need to “cut projects to the bone”, indicating that RIM was trying to do too much. Spreading resources too thin, doing a lot of things but not doing anything very well. This was a lack of focused vision translated into many visions, projects and end states.

“We urgently need to invest like we never have before in becoming developer friendly.”

“No one in RIM dares to tell management how bad our tools still are.”

If you look at IOS and Android, the platform leaders they viewed the development community at large as an extension of their organization. Enabling the millions of developers with tools they love to use to add to your products seems like a no brainer yet, this is another place RIM has failed. Again, the sense from the employee I get is that   the leadership culture was closed off to criticism and being challenged.


Just because someone may have been a loyal RIM employee for 7 years, it doesn’t mean they are the best Manager / Director / VP for that role.”

This line says a lot. Promoting within is when a company is following through on the promise made to an employee to keep them at your company and “grow” their career. Sounds good and it can work in some cases, but it’s not necessarily good for the business. The point is, rock star developers don’t usually translate to rock star managers and the inverse is true too.

Hire people for the job that needs to be done and don’t favor internal employees over outside candidates. New people bring new perspectives and it’s new perspectives that help innovation.

The last thing the employee says is this;

“The timing is perfect to seriously evaluate at our position and make these major changes. We can do it!”

His motives throughout the letter was to help the company he worked for, make it better, turn it around and help it rise to the top again. Unfortunately, A year later, I feel his honest cry for help went nowhere and that RIM continues to spiral down because it hasn’t been able to lead their people.

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