Reactors at the Helm of RIM?


"I have lost confidence" wrote an anonymous executive at Research In Motion, the maker of the Blackberry, last Thursday.

In an open letter to the company's co-CEOs and other senior managers, the executive lamented, "While I hide it at work, my passion has been sapped. I know I am not alone — the sentiment is widespread and it includes people within your own teams."

RIM responded publicly saying it was aware of the issues, but in the process it defensively questioned why someone would write an open letter and then awkwardly highlighted its track record and future prospects. That sounds like the response of a reactor.

Here's the reality. The percentage of phones sold by RIM in the US during the last three months dropped from 11% to 6% according to analysts with Nielsen, a near 50% decline. In addition, RIM has reportedly chopped its internal sales estimates for the Blackberry Playbook, its iPad-like tablet launched in April.

What is happening at RIM? Are there a couple of reactors at the helm? There are many possibilities, but a few stand out:

Culture of Repression

From the open letter, "You have many smart employees, many that have great ideas for the future, but unfortunately the culture at RIM does not allow us to speak openly without having to worry about the career-limiting effects."

When most of us see the negative consequences of speaking up, we shut down and check out. It takes enormous passion and commitment to take a stand against repression. And sometimes an open letter is the only way.

Leaders must create a culture of curiosity, where ideas and concerns can be openly shared without fear of reprisal. They should spend more of their time asking questions than giving answers.

Failure to Focus

Again from the letter, "There is a serious need to consolidate our focus to just a handful of projects. Period. We need to be disciplined here. We can't afford any more initiatives... Strategy is often in the things you decide not to do."

Strategy is about prioritization and then saying "No!" to everything else. Without a commitment to do a few things very well, projects fall behind, and what get's done, doesn't get done well.

Leaders should remember that not every great idea can be pursued. Leaders must build alignment and commitment with their team to focus on those few priorities that will make all the difference.

Loyalty Without Accountability

"RIM has a lot of people who underperform but still stay in their roles. No one is accountable..." said the anonymous RIM executive. "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... We have far too many people in critical roles that fit this description."

When we fail to hold others accountable, we do them and ourselves a disservice. True concern and respect means we have the tough conversation and make the difficult decision.

Leaders must care enough about others to hold their feet to the fire. Strong leaders know that personal growth flows from being responsible for our choices and actions. Remember, there is no true freedom without accountability.

Hubris Born of Success

RIM was the leader in smartphones for many years. Its position seemed unassailable when Apple launched the iPhone, but things change. From the letter, "Overconfidence clouds good decision-making. We missed not boldly reacting to the threat of iPhone when we saw it in January over four years ago. We laughed and said they are trying to put a computer on a phone, that it won't work... We are now 3-4 years too late. That is the painful truth."

As we choose to listen to the siren song of success, we often fail to hear the sound of change crashing all around us.

Leaders must see humility as a strength, not a weakness. They must remember that change is the the only constant.

Decline does not have to be a foregone conclusion. As Jim Collins said in his book, How the Mighty Fall, "Decline can be detected. Decline can be reversed. Decline can be avoided."