How Twitter chief's memo highlights personal responsibility at the top

06 February 2015 -


As social network’s boss blasts his own efforts to contain trolling, we look at the long-term effects of other senior managers’ mea culpas

Jermaine Haughton

Getting highly successful and powerful business leaders to admit they are personally responsible for faults in their companies is not a common occurrence – at least, not in public, anyway. However, in a leaked internal memo, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo acknowledged to colleagues that his failure to eliminate the micro-blogging site’s chronic problems with harassment and abuse, commonly known as “trolling”, is driving away users and damaging its reputation.

Taking personal responsibility for the trolls, Costolo told employees that he is embarrassed for the company's failings and is determined to take stronger action. “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform,” he wrote in the message obtained by The Verge, “and we've sucked at it for years. It's no secret and the rest of the world talks about it every day. We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day.”

Twitter has been widely criticised by users and the media for not being stringent enough in deterring and punishing bullies on the site. Costolo’s comments came in response to a question on an internal forum about the infamous case of Lindy West: a frequent target of harassment on Twitter. Bullies created a Twitter profile for her deceased father and used it to make cruel comments about her.

In a follow-up message, Costolo added: “Let me be very, very clear about my response here. I take PERSONAL responsibility for our failure to deal with this as a company. I thought I did that in my note, so let me reiterate what I said, which is that I take personal responsibility for this. I specifically said ‘It's nobody's fault but mine’.”

He stressed: “We HAVE to be able to tell each other the truth, and the truth that everybody in the world knows is that we have not effectively dealt with this problem even remotely to the degree we should have by now, and that's on me and nobody else. So now we're going to fix it, and I'm going to take full responsibility for making sure that the people working night and day on this have the resources they need to address the issue, that there are clear lines of responsibility and accountability, and that we don't equivocate in our decisions and choices.”

Since the memos leaked, Twitter has not made an official comment on its plans to tackle trolls. But with its fourth quarter earnings showing signs that the company’s revenue is improving, Costolo will be keen to ensure that the figures do not mark a false dawn. Indeed, he could do a lot worse than learn from the examples of other top executives who have also taken personal responsibility – in public – and look at how those decisions affected their businesses, whether for better or worse.

In the case of fellow tech company Nokia, former chief executive Stephen Elop’s confession in 2012 that the Finnish firm failed to foresee rapid changes in the mobile phone industry did little to halt its demise from the world’s leading mobile phone carrier for about 14 years, to a comparatively minute industry player. Elop admitted that the company failed to react quickly enough to the change in consumer tastes, or the budding popularity of Samsung and Apple’s smartphone devices.

Conversely, Amazon chief Jeff Bezos cleverly used the opportunity to admit his faults in launching the company’s unpopular Fire Phone, as a means of showcasing the company’s willingness to take technological chances. Comparing the Fire Phone to other ventures that have been successful for the company – such as Kindle – Bezos told the Business Insider conference last year: “People love to focus on things that aren’t working. That’s fine, but it’s incredibly hard to get people to take bold bets. And if you push people to take bold bets, there will be experiments … that don’t work.”

While signs of a Fire Phone 2 are very unlikely, Amazon seems to have been largely unaffected by the flop – maintaining its rank as the world’s largest e-retailer. Unlike Nokia, though, Bezos may have been under less pressure to take responsibility for the device’s failure, as the Phone was not a huge part of its business. Elop, on the other hand, had to admit the defeat of essentially the whole of his company’s business strategy.

With that in mind, Costolo could be advised to follow the lead of General Motors chief Mary Barra, who last year made a public stand to reassure and retain the trust of GM’s customers. Barra – the automaker’s first female chief executive – took full responsibility for the 2.5 million vehicle recalls that the firm was forced to make amid concerns over faulty ignition switches. Speaking to CNBC, she said: “I have never accepted [that] it is middle management that is the issue. I’ve got to lead and demonstrate by example and drive that through the organisation.”

For more thoughts on managerial responsibility, download CMI’s recent report The MoralDNA of Performance.

Image of Dick Costolo courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons.

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