I just finished the Walter Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs. It’s an excellent book about a very complicated man. All through the book I kept asking myself, “Would I hire a Steve Jobs to run my company?” It’s a difficult question on several different levels. So in some coherent fashion, I’ll take a stab at this question….
First, I need to start by admitting a few of my biases. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are personal heroes of mine. I met Bill Gates in 1988, well before he was the second richest man in the world. I regret never having met Steve Jobs. I also regret the fact I didn’t really appreciate all that Jobs accomplished in a career played like an American drama production in two acts.
His first act (before Jobs’ firing in 1985) was an amazing combination of insight, bravado, luck, and timing. Think about this. The year Apple booked its first $1 billion in revenue, Microsoft’s sales were $32 million. Jobs’ second act, beginning in 1986, included building Pixar; selling Pixar to Disney; returning to save Apple; then saving Apple; and forever changing the animated film, computer, music, and telephone industries. At the time of Jobs’ death, Apple’s market value was 70% higher than Microsoft’s and Apple was the second most valuable company in the world. (Gates remains the world’s second richest man.)
It’s pretty clear Jobs had both an extreme and an extremely difficult personality. A visionary, his social skills bordered on mild Aspergers syndrome. His impatience for anything that was imperfect—including food, people, products, and more, was legendary. Jobs was a very emotional man who often cried if he was losing an argument. He never forgave a slight or failed to hold a grudge. Jobs himself had enough insight to know he was an Asshole, and he frequently called himself one. I think he saw being an Asshole as an asset, not a liability (as most Assholes do, by the way). But would I want a Steve Jobs running MY company?
Jobs had some terrific leadership insights. Among them was his description of what he thought the CEO should be. His first leadership insight was the need to have and demonstrate extreme focus. Isaacson described Jobs as a visionary who was capable of having a Laser-like focus on a small number of things. When Jobs returned to Apple, he slashed the number of products Apple made and sold. He was as concerned about what to stop doing as he was about what to do. He believed you could not focus on hundreds of SKUs and have any of them be really great. His second leadership insight was the importance of collaboration—internally and externally. For example, Apple could never have survived without Microsoft. And certainly Apple launched Microsoft into the applications business. Jobs was committed to keeping his businesses organized like start-ups: Pixar in the 90’s and then Apple. This meant maintaining a flat structure in his businesses, with a minimum of politics and committees, and organized his business work groups into relatively small teams. Jobs spent the majority of his work time meeting with his team leaders. His third insight was hard work. In every part of his career, Jobs was a very hard working CEO. I think he worked so hard because he loved his work. But the leadership insight that resonated with me the strongest was Jobs commitment to being a “talent scout.” He was constantly on the hunt for “A” players. One example was after his liver transplant, he took a tour of Sun Records in Memphis. The tour docent was a young guy who really knew the history of The Blues and early Rock and Roll. When Jobs toured Sun Records, the docent didn’t even know Jobs was the Jobs. But the docent so impressed Jobs, Jobs flew him to Apple’s headquarters and hired him to run part of the iTunes store. So how could a guy who was so brutal in his treatment of subordinates build a great company? A big part of the answer is that he hired “A” players. In fact, I think the majority of people who were less than “A” players washed out because they couldn’t deal with Jobs’ tyrannical nature. So do you need to be an Asshole like Jobs to build a great company like Apple?
I really don’t think so. It’s the same problem I have with so many business books like the Tom Peters books, which highlight a small number of successful companies and then attempt to connect the dots of cause and effect in hindsight. Using this approach, one might conclude in order to have a successful company like Apple, the CEO needs to be a tyrannical, impatient, socially-impaired, perfectionist Asshole. I could argue for every Apple, there are hundreds or thousands of companies that failed or went bankrupt with leaders possessing the same “Jobsian” qualities.
What really set and still sets Apple apart — and it starts at the top — was a fanatical dedication to a higher purpose….best said in Jobs’ words: “Putting a dent in the universe” and building “an enduring company.” Certainly Jobs was a very wealthy man and Apple has $76 billion on its balance sheet to prove it, but he never ran his businesses putting profits first. He simply believed making money was a license to continue to do great things. And his team believed this too.
Now, if I were a real writer, I’d have to list about 30 acknowledgements for this blog. But rather, I suggest you buy the Isaacson book and it will cover about half of it. The other half of the credit for my quotes and musings goes to SIRI, the iPhone 4S electronic assistant. It’s amazing. She (SIRI) found Apple’s balance sheet cash, Gates net worth, and the size of Ellison’s boat. SIRI and the iPhone 4S are great legacies to Jobs.
Obviously, we can never answer the question about Jobs running MY company. But the question of whether I would hire a tyrannical, impatient, socially-challenged, perfectionist Asshole to run my company is clear….
Only if he was “The” Steven P. Jobs!