Unveiling the Dark Side of Tech Leadership

Scandals and Success Stories

Whilst some of the stories unearthed in this post have made headline news they exist as a proxy for many thousands of other smaller scale tales that you may have experienced in the world of tech or your start-up journey.

I’ve seen fist fights, tears, burn out, legal battles – all of it! But in there somewhere is a fierce burning desire of many to make things work on so many levels.

Building products, trying to get them to market and facing all the trials and tribulations of the start-up world can be extremelt challenging. Navigating the intricacies of this dynamic industry is not just about success stories but also about learning from the darker sides. In this blog post, we will delve into real-world examples that highlight the scandals and triumphs of tech leadership, providing valuable insights and advice on how to avoid the pitfalls that can accompany the pursuit of success.

Spoiler alert – I can’t name names for obvious reasons but I will share a few of my own experiences and how the actors within those stories made it through.

From Hero to Zero

I worked with a service designer a few years ago. She told me of a crazy experience of a company in the music-tech space. The founders had an incredible vision. Their product was going to be groundbreaking and early prototypes had sparked huge interest in not only users but also investors. The company raised some serious funding. My friend was running the UX team. Every week the company hired more people. The set about building the most incredible mobile application. Months went by. People were excited. A year went by. And yet nothing had been launched. Millions had been spent. The money ran out and the company shut down 18 months after inception with not one single release to market.

👉 Lessons: As a founder you’re not the judge of your product, your users are. Launch to market as soon as you can. If you’re a product person in an organisation like this then try to read the room. Ask about runway, discuss release schedules and user feedback. Make up your mind if you want to be a part of something that might be inherently flawed on a fundamental level. And if you’ve been burnt by such an experience learn from it when you jump to your next gig.

The Rise and Fall of Theranos

One of the most infamous cases in recent memory is the rise and fall of Theranos, a health technology company led by Elizabeth Holmes. The company promised groundbreaking advancements in blood testing technology but ultimately faced allegations of fraud and deception. As a tech leader, it’s crucial to maintain transparency and integrity. Success built on false promises can crumble, causing irreparable damage to one’s career and reputation. Check out the fantastic dramatisation of this here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W7rlZLw9m10

👉 Lessons: Prioritise honesty and ethical practices. Ensure that your products and services deliver on their promises, and be transparent about challenges and setbacks. Often company culture is affected by the founders’ behaviour and intent. This can be demoralising or much worse for the employees. I knew one company that was able to raise tens of millions of dollars based on artificial sales-led data (Their core product had very little retention but due to the long contracts signed by new clients they were able to show huge growth numbers). The toxic culture led to continual layoffs, tears and a feeling of extreme uncertainty within the teams. As a founder you’ll eventually be found out and face the music or worse. As an employee move quickly to exit places like this!

Uber’s Cultural Crisis:

Uber, the global ride-sharing giant, faced a significant cultural crisis when allegations of harassment and discrimination surfaced. The company’s toxic workplace culture led to a series of scandals that rocked the tech industry. Leadership plays a pivotal role in shaping company culture, and fostering an inclusive and respectful environment is paramount.

👉 Lessons: Cultivate a positive workplace culture that values diversity, inclusivity, and respect. Establish clear channels for reporting issues and take swift action to address any concerns. Ask yourself as a founder, what do you want to achieve? As an employee ask the same question – if you’re all about the exit then that is fine but make a contract with yourself to understand your personal priorities.

The Facebook Cambridge Analytica Scandal:

Facebook faced scrutiny when it was revealed that user data was misused by Cambridge Analytica for political purposes. This scandal highlighted the importance of data privacy and the ethical responsibility tech leaders bear in handling user information.

👉 Lessons: Prioritise user privacy and data security. Implement robust measures to protect user data, comply with regulations, and communicate openly about data practices to build trust with your user base. If you make mistakes move quickly to repair the damage. A health-tech company accused of selling data to a social media giant did a fantastic job recently here. The Federal Trade Commission slapped their wrists and they were forced to address privacy concerns in their app. But the company then went above and beyond to protect its users. They built in anonymous ID for users so now their products are safe to use and provide milions with legitimate value. Furthermore they went from being lamented on social media to becoming a little bit of a maverick in the US for advocating women’s rights.

The Elon Musk Rollercoaster:

Elon Musk, the charismatic CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, is known for his brilliance and innovation but has also faced controversies due to his outspoken and sometimes erratic behaviour on social media. While Musk’s success is undeniable, his leadership style underscores the need for balance and self-awareness.

👉 Lessons: Balance innovation with responsible communication. Be mindful of how your actions and words can impact your company’s reputation. Effective leadership requires a combination of boldness and prudence. Again this boils down to your moral compass and your goals. There are CEOs who are focussed solely on numbers, those that care more about the mental health or financial wellbeing of their entire staff and so on. The type of company you want to run or work for will be determined by where your heart lies.

Closing Thoughts

One founder I know was burning through cash with their start-up. After raising millions but not seeing enough traction with users the founder left as CEO and was understandably burnt out and suffered from depression. They turned this experience into a product that could help people going through hard times and ten years later their ‘new’ company is worth over $5BN.

The world of product and start-ups / scale-ups can be incredibly tough. Most fail. The stresses and strains put on people are next level! It is certainly not the environment for everyone. Those that do decide to enter into this world must understand this. If you’re a determined founder then you’ll need to build up resilience. You’ll need to keep going after failure (many times possibly) and will often question why you are doing this.

If you are entering into this world as an employee do you have what it takes to thrive under such pressure? Is it right for you? Is there too much of a trade-off between work/life balance or mental health?

Learning from the missteps of others can empower you to lead with integrity, foster a positive company culture, prioritise data privacy, and balance innovation with responsibility. By embracing these lessons, you can elevate your leadership and contribute to the creation of a thriving, ethical, and innovative tech ecosystem.

If there are two closing pieces of advice I’d give they’d simply be: Be kind to yourself and others.