The Away CEO’s Bullying Isn’t a ‘Management Style’
Don’t confuse being a tough leader with being an asshole
Co-authored with Melissa Nightingale
Last month, after the Verge published an exposé on how Away CEO Steph Korey berates her employees over the company’s public Slack channels, things blew up very quickly. Within four days, Away announced that Korey would step down. Then, earlier this week, Korey abruptly announced via the New York Times that actually she will continue to run the company as co-CEO. The article referred to her behavior as her “management style.”
“She apologized for her management style and stepped down as chief executive. Now, she says it was a mistake to fall on her sword and is taking her job back,” Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote. (Later that day, Away’s VP of people and culture announced her resignation.)
Management style is a real thing. Leading a group of people to great work is inherently stylistic. When do you pursue and build consensus, and when are you more directive? That’s stylistic. How much do you let your team see you get excited about wins or try to stay stoic? How much time do you spend on the internal, operational bits of the business — or do you prefer to lead from an outward-facing, strategic place? Those are styles of leadership, and you have your own. Part of the adventure of management is figuring out what yours is and how to evolve it as you grow.
What was described in the Verge article is abusive. That isn’t management; it’s humiliation. Korey used public Slack channels to call her employees “brain dead.” She spoke to them like they were children. It brought to mind the time when Steve Jobs once told a room full of employees, “You should hate each other for having let each other down.” That’s not a management style. That’s someone not in control of their shit. That’s a grown adult lashing out abusively in frustration.
It’s also true, though, that the response has been deeply gendered. That’s no excuse, to be clear. When you patronize employees about what a great professional development opportunity it will be for you to suspend all paid time off, you’re being an asshole. That said, plenty of male CEOs run companies this badly and worse. Plenty of men don’t manage their shit. They cultivate toxic behaviors, and they talk down to their teams. And they get away with it. So it’s complicated to signal boost and honor the employees trying to tell their story without becoming part of the problem of media cycles attacking women leaders.
When you need that kind of help, that’s a job for a therapist. Not your employees.
This situation has been a real Rorschach test for the tech industry and startups at large. Many people are anonymously terrible, of course. But some of the “old guard that are still sometimes cool” have been pretty uncool, too. Michael Dearing calls it a “torch and pitchfork” mob, which is quite a thing coming from someone who teaches management. Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway have spent a couple of recent podcasts on the sentiment “who cares if she’s tough?”
Being tough is having high standards. Being tough is saying, “This isn’t nearly good enough.” This is not simply about being tough.
Bossing is hard. It’s often a lot of hours spent on an emotional roller coaster. And when it’s a business you’ve founded, it’s so hard to preserve any separation between that business and yourself. It can wear you out. And, depending on the people you have around you, it can be a lonely place, too. All of this takes a toll and depletes your ability to control your shit. I understand it. But that’s an explanation, not an excuse.
It’s okay to need help learning to live in your feelings. Many of us are not taught how to process hard things in constructive, integrated ways. You think you know yourself until some catastrophe hits, and then suddenly you realize how much help you need. But when you need that kind of help, that’s a job for a therapist. Not your employees.
And if you skip the therapy, bring that damage to work, and punch down? That’s not a management style. That’s abuse. To reckon with that abuse and find a path to meaningful restoration and growth is hard work. It starts with staring it in the face for what it is and acknowledging how harmful you’ve been.
You can start by recognizing these things:
Everyone shows up to work wanting to do a good job. That needs to be our touchstone as leaders because it reminds us that even when people are failing, they are still people. Publicly berating someone who showed up to do a good job in your organization is you failing at your job.
Founders and CEOs have an outsized impact on the culture within their organizations. Culture flows downhill. It’s useful to clearly articulate the parts of the organization that aren’t working. The next step is understanding your role in getting to this point: if you built something you don’t like; if you hired the wrong team; if you dislike the culture; if you feel like you’re shouldering the whole thing and your senior team just shrugs. The good news is that it’s fixable. The bad news is that you’ve got to own your part. And that’s really uncomfortable.
All the interesting work in your organization happens at the intersections of more than one department. One of the most striking parts of the Verge piece is the total lack of communication between teams. Anything that showed up at the intersection of more than one team was a game of hot potato for who was most likely to get reamed on Slack. This is not an environment that bred collaboration, and ultimately, it created an incompetence loop. That loop is of the CEO’s own making.
If people feel like they are one mistake away from being raked over the coals, they don’t take big swings. They make small, safe moves. Instead of fixing the system problems that caused the massive backlog of tickets, they get into their pajamas, tuck into bed, and try to answer a few more tickets before they fall asleep.
I recently saw a venture capitalist comment that if you haven’t been a founder, you should shut up because you don’t get how hard it is. I get that. I’m a founder. I’ve been a boss. But I’ve also been an employee. Don’t be an asshole.