If you can remember the week marked the departure of one of the most iconic figures from the international corporate stage, as Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, stepped down after some years of ill-health. The very fact that his resignation had been slowly and carefully stage-managed for more than a year indicates both the personal impact that Jobs has had on the Apple organisation and the intimate association that intrinsically binds Jobs the individual and Apple the brand. Jobs’ fame has spawned many articles, books and even scholarly texts analysing why he has such global resonance as a leader. His decision-making skills are so admired that an acronym has grown up in his honour – “WWSJD?” i.e. “What would Steve Jobs do?” So what is it about this man that makes him stand out from the crowd and what could we, as relative minnows in the business world, learn from his style and his philosophy?
It’s important to keep in mind from the start that Jobs is not universally loved. He’s a controversial man who divides opinion and who is famous for a fiercely autocratic style. “Aggressive”, “demanding”, “Silicon Valley’s leading egomaniac” are among the epithets Jobs has inspired. Not for him a collaborative, “buddy buddy” style of management. Tales of his temper tantrums are legendary. However Jobs’ belief is that as a leader, you aren’t there to be your subordinates’ best friend - a tip we could all learn as business owners and leaders. “My job is not to be easy on people. My job is to make them better,” Jobs was quoted as saying in Fortune Magazine.
The flipside of (or perhaps the complement to?) this drive and aggression is that Jobs is often cited as an inspiring and charismatic leader. Charismatic people are rarely the easiest of individuals and Jobs seems no exception. He is a wonderful storyteller and uses his powerful public speaking ability to captivate his audiences. His famous address to Stanford University in 2005, widely available on Google, is worth seeking out as a read in itself to get a sense of what makes this man tick and what has driven him through life. He can fire up audiences with the power of an evangelist, and this quality is certainly reflected in the zealot-like adoration shown by the millions of devotees to Apple’s products.
What Jobs certainly had in spades when building his company was an exceptionally clear vision of what he wanted to achieve, and the drive to effect that change. His passion for what he produced was powerful to the point of obsession. And as such, he expected the same commitment from those who worked for him, which may have produced tensions but also provided a fertile breeding ground for some of the world’s most innovative new products. Jobs famously took a course in calligraphy when a young man, and that attention to design, shape, simplicity, form and detail is synonymous with Apple. He was renowned for his tendency to micromanage his employees (again hardly textbook management behaviour, but a hallmark of the perfectionist) although in recent years he is reputed to have mellowed somewhat.
But Apple’s success isn’t just down to the appearance of its products. “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works,” Jobs once remarked. And therein lies another of Jobs’ great talents. As well as being a passionate perfectionist with vision and an eye for detail, he also knew his technical stuff inside out and could hire people with absolutely the right skill set. He and his team created real products which not only worked but which looked fabulous and which people not only wanted to own but desired and coveted. Famously when Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, having been forced out ten years earlier, his first question was: “Tell me what is wrong with this place?” Which, typically, he answered himself: “It’s the products. The products suck. There is no sex in them anymore.”
“My philosophy is that everything starts with a great product,” he told Newsweek back in 1985, way before the Iphone, Ipod or Ipad hit our collective consciousness. The combination of creativity and design flair with a genius for marketing, plus a serious dash of hard-nosed business acumen (left brain right brain skills, some might say) seemed to come together in this one exceptional individual.
Interestingly, Apple also challenged the common belief that the customer is always right. Although the company absolutely recognised that the relationship with the customer is vital, it also believed that the customer doesn’t always know what he or she actually needs. Jobs was fond of quoting Henry Ford: “If I had asked customers what they’d wanted, they would have asked for a faster horse.” Of course they would - because a car didn’t exist and was beyond most people’s conceptual ability. As a true visionary, Jobs read the market, anticipated its direction and blindsided it with completely new products, even in the face of initial mockery. He had the self-confidence to decide what was best for the consumer, irrespective of what they thought they needed, and sell it to them with chutzpah and passion.
Jobs was also fearless in his corporate decisions. He didn’t have it easy – having been ousted from Apple, which he had co-founded, he could have shrunk into oblivion or lived quietly with his wife and three children for the rest of his days. However, instead he founded NeXT Computers and Pixar Animation (heard of them?) demonstrating yet again not only his visionary abilities but his entrepreneurial spirit. How sweet it must have been for Jobs when Apple subsequently purchased NeXT for $429 million dollars so it could use the technology to upgrade its by then dated Mac OS system. And, as if the moment could not have been more delicious, Jobs resumed his place as CEO as an intrinsic part of the deal - with an extremely tasty share package to boot.
His courage, extreme focus and his ability to take difficult decisions, was shown during this period when he immediately reduced the product range on which Apple was working from forty to four. Commercial suicide, some people suggested. “Focus means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are,” Jobs said to Fortune magazine. He identified which ones would be great rather than good and invested all Apple’s energies in making that happen. The rest is history, which we’ll probably listen to on our Ipods, read through our Ipads or hear about chatting on our Iphones.
In summary, Jobs is far from a text-book example of classic management behaviour. He doesn’t tick all the boxes and indeed rips some of them up. But we can learn much from him as to how to take our own companies forward.
Here are just a few ideas we may want to take from the extraordinary legacy to business thinking that Steve Jobs has left in his wake.
- Don’t be your employees’ best friend. Be their leader and guide and you’ll bring out the best in them.
- Inspire your employees and your customers through your passion for your business or product.
- Have a vision of what you want to achieve and why.
- Keep innovating.
- Great design is not enough. You need a great product as well.
- Challenge your customers’ beliefs about what they want.
- Don’t give into knockbacks but keep your entrepreneurial spirit.
- Keep focused on the best ideas in your organisation. Don’t try to do everything.
And finally here’s my favourite Steve Jobs quote, from his Stanford speech. Although it applies to business, it’s really about life in general, and given Jobs’ battle with cancer, he knows a bit about life as well as business. Every time I read it, it makes me re-evaluate my priorities and check my life is heading where I want it to be heading - and re-calibrate if necessary. That’s something to be treasured and a legacy worth leaving.
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”