Tech's Latest Mini-Drama, Starring Nest's Tony Fadell

Tony Fadell is famous for having developed Apple’s iPod and then founding Nest, which makes a popular smart thermostat. In 2014, Google acquired Nest for $3.2 billion and, when the search giant reorganized as Alphabet last year, Fadell became CEO of the holding company’s Nest subsidiary. Everything seemed hunky dory at the time.

Last Friday, Fadell abruptly resigned. Word has it that the former Apple executive was forced out for failing to produce new products, missing revenue targets, botching an acquisition of security camera maker Dropcam and overseeing a massive talent exodus.

Then again, that depends on whose side of the story you read.

On the one hand, you have Dropcam founder and former CEO Greg Duffy, who has made no secret of his repeated clashes with Fadell, venting publicly about one blowup where he accused his new boss of acting like a “tyrant bureaucrat.” Duffy later resigned, but not before complaining about Fadell to Alphabet CEO Larry Page.

Duffy has since expressed regret for having sold his startup in the first place. You’d think $555 million would have been enough to offset any seller’s remorse. I guess not.  

Then there’s Fadell, who vigorously defended his reportedly rocky tenure at Alphabet in a Bloomberg interview, claiming that the drama unfolding in the media “doesn’t reflect our culture.” He also indicated that it’s business as usual at Nest and his departure was planned months in advance.

Fadell also said that he’s been quietly investing in more than 100 ventures over the past decade or so. I have two comments. First, perhaps that had something to do with Nest’s performance. After all, that’s a lot of balls to juggle. Second, I don’t expect he’ll be getting bored anytime soon.

The funny thing is, you don’t have to be an insider to know this stuff – it’s coming straight from the mouths of the two former CEOs. I can’t tell if they’re just whiners, finger pointers or trying to protect their precious reputations. Whatever the reason, they’re both out of jobs, perhaps with good reason.

The sordid affair is eerily reminiscent of two experiences I had as a young engineer right out of college. The first was over a feud with a coworker. We both went crying to our manager, who said, “Work it out or I’ll fire you both.” Like turning the hose on fighting dogs, it worked. We worked it out.

The second was over a dustup with my direct manager. When I went over his head, his manager said, “He’s your boss; get over it.” At that point, I began to see the writing appear on the wall. In the big leagues, it doesn’t do any good to whine about personality or leadership conflicts. Find a way to work it out or quit. End of story.

Fast forward a few decades. In our modern era of blogs, social media, and Medium, everyone has the opportunity to air all sorts of dirty laundry for the whole wide world to see. But they don’t have to. And they shouldn’t. It’s nothing but vanity. Pride. Ego. Self-obsession. It doesn’t reflect well on them, or their companies, for that matter.

No shortage of bad examples notwithstanding, there are a few beacons of hope, albeit too few and far between. Oracle co-CEO Mark Hurd, comes to mind.

After executing one of the more remarkable turnarounds in corporate history, Hurd was all-too-publicly forced out of HP by what had to have been the most dysfunctional board in history. But he kept his cool and, unless I’m mistaken, has never defended himself in the media. The consummate professional simply moved on.

Of course, that didn’t stop his successors, Leo Apotheker and Meg Whitman, from blaming their own bad decisions and poor performance on Hurd, a Tsunami in Japan, Apple’s iPad and a disastrous $11.1 billion acquisition of UK-based software firm Autonomy that, ironically, they themselves executed and botched.

Look, we’re all human and it is human nature to want to be perceived as a do-gooder. Besides, it’s natural for high-achieving business leaders to want to set the record straight and protect their hard-earned reputations. But publicly complaining and blaming others is immature and tedious.

CEOs are paid big bucks to grow a thick skin, put on their big boy pants and hold themselves accountable. Period.