What Should We Learn from Steve Jobs?

by

So the toils of my EMBA program are over for a brief respite and I finally have time to one of my passions which is reading for pleasure.  I chose on this occasion to pick up Steve Jobs’ biography.  First off, many kudos to Walter Isaacson for an absolutely riveting story that read like a novel.  It grabbed me from page one and really never let me go.  I finished the 656 page manuscript in less than three days and feel forever changed from the adventure.

In Steve Jobs we had an intersection of science and liberal arts as he often liked to quote.  That’s where he positioned Apple, Inc. and that’s where he found himself most comfortable.  His zen state it would seem was found merging the art of technology with the technology of art.  In the process, Mr. Jobs and his team, put marvels of technology and art in our hands, in our laps and on our desks.  He took complexity and made it unbelievably simple.  The flip of a power switch; the spin of a flywheel; if it took long; if it required a manual; if it didn’t wow the customer within seconds…it was shit and not worthy of Apple nor its users.  How many companies can say that they take their users this seriously?  How many pursue their product development with such ardor and passion?

To segue real quickly, I find myself in my academic pursuits to be absolutely mesmerized by Jim Collins study of what makes companies great.  In Jim Collins’ work through the last 10-15 years he has captured quite brilliantly the companies and their leadership that have made an enduring mark on the American business landscape.  Leaders of great companies typically are not focused on being great, making headlines or advancing their own egos.  As Mr. Collins suggests, they are seemingly ordinary people doing extraordinary things.  I find the lessons of “Good To Great” and the lessons learned from studying Steve Jobs to be eerily similar with one rather large deviation – that Mr. Jobs always felt he was extraordinary…or so it would seem.  He certainly had an ego.  But what keeps him within Mr. Collins’ definition is that his ego was consumed by Apple and his desire to make Apple larger than his own being.  Based on this where he falls into the Good To Great criteria is mystifying.

Collins says:

In each of these dramatic, remarkable, good-to-great corporate transformations, we found the same thing: There was no miracle moment. Instead, a down-to-earth, pragmatic, committed-to-excellence process—a framework—kept each company, its leaders, and its people on track for the long haul. In each case, it was the triumph of the Flywheel Effect over the Doom Loop, the victory of steadfast discipline over the quick fix.

In reading about Steve Jobs, I see this same precision…same methodical approach…same quest for nothing short of excellence and the same intolerance for anything that reeked of mediocrity.  Per my understanding of the definition, he appears to be the penultimate Level 5 leader.  For him, ‘great’ wasn’t a goal…it’s just was never an option.

In the days since I finished reading his biography, I have found myself in a couple of work situations where I found myself asking myself “Well…what would Steve say” … “What would Steve think?”   I never knew Steve Jobs.  I never had the great fortune of being infected by his Reality Distortion Field (RDF), though I’m quite sure I would been drawn right in.  I never had the misfortune of being on the wrong end of his tantrums, though I’m quite sure they would have spurred me to excellence.

I look at the story of Steve Jobs and Apple, Inc and I see everything that is wrong with the rest of the business world.  Nothing can be achieved by a company that fails to focus.  Nothing can be achieved by a company that fails to identify what its core mission in life is.  Nothing can be achieved unless, once defined, that company stay rigorously true to its core.  Massive change is possible, but incrementally is the risk managed approach that seems to win.  Apple’s contributions to the world were big, but methodical.  First a personal computer that revolutionized the computer industry.  Then a mobile MP3 player with a music ecosystem that saved the music industry from the brink of annihilation.  Then a mobile phone that redefines the cell phone market.  Each time excellent.  Each time with a laser sharp focus on who the company was and what they were put on earth to do.

For Steve Jobs, innovation fell in two categories:  It was either “Ok, this is great!” or “This is shit!”  Mr. Jobs built a whole team culture around making sure that when he saw what they were working on that his first reaction wasn’t “This is shit!”  “If something isn’t right, you can’t just ignore it and say you’ll fix it later,” he said.  “That’s what other companies do.”

That final statement I have come to realize has made me re-evaluate everything I have learned through the companies I have worked for.  Frankly, my own experience with product development has been dominated by an attitude of “just get it out the door and we’ll fix it in the next release!”  That would never fly at Apple.  Clearly, if Mr. Jobs had caught wind of such a mantra, I would have been quickly out of a job.  After reading about Apple, I am pretty convinced that this is the way it ought to be.  That if you put out shit, you should have your own career to answer to.  We should all have these kinds of pressures railing against us.    They spur us to excellence.  And those for whom it doesn’t…frankly they shouldn’t be on the bus anyway.

This is what we can learn from Mr. Jobs.  This is perhaps his greatest gift to business school students and business leaders through the country.  If America is going to continue to dominate in the world of finance and business, it must adopt the same attitude that has made Apple an enduring company and one that will endure far beyond its creator. Apple is an amazing example, but there are, of course others.  We have Sam Walton and Wal-Mart.  We have Walt Disney and Disney.  I’m sure you can think of some examples, too.  These are the anti-case for Jim Collins theories of great leaders.  These weren’t ordinary people doing extraordinary things…these were rather extraordinary-larger-than-life-people that had no doubts about their abilities and their mission to create enduring companies that changed the world.   What I admire most is that for these great leaders who all achieved enormous wealth…rich or poor…they were never in it for the money.  In Mr. Jobs own words:

My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products.  Everything else was secondary.  Sure, it was great to make a profit, because that was what allowed you to make great products.  But the products, not the profits, were the motivation.

Mr. Jobs, and those he is compared to, teach us that when a company has the right leader and when employees (largely A-types) are put under intense pressure…and I think when said leader lives in his own RDF-induced world…that the company and its employees go on to build the unthinkable, achieve the impossible and turn out products that wow us into submission.

…What would Steve say?

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