I know I said the previous post would be my last on Apple for now, but indulge me just one more today (and I do promise that the next post will be about something else - already drafting it).
As part of a course I did in early 2010, I prepared a presentation and brief paper on Steve Jobs as a leader. It doesn’t examine the issues particularly in depth, but it is a nice overview of some aspects of his management style that led to his (and Apple’s) successful second act.
Steve Jobs, CEO Apple Inc
Introduction and background
Stephen Paul Jobs is the CEO of Apple Inc, the world’s largest technology company, as well as a member of the board, and largest individual shareholder, of the Walt Disney Company. He founded Apple in his garage, and spearheaded the ‘personal computing’ revolution of the early 1980s. After being kicked out of the company in 1985, he purchased a computer animation company from George Lucas that he turned into Pixar Animation Studios. At the same time, he founded NeXT Computer, whose software forms the framework of the successful Mac OS X operating system. With Apple in dire straits, Jobs was brought back into the fold in 1997 as interim CEO following Apple’s acquisition of NeXT.
What followed is termed one of the ‘greatest second acts’ in business. Jobs dramatically cut down Apple’s product line (to desktop and portable computers in professional and consumer varieties) and refocused the paradigm for personal computing around the ‘digital hub’ – the concept that discrete lifestyle tasks could be enhanced if organised efficiently by a computer focused on those tasks. Amongst other things, this led to the creation of the iMac all-in-one computer, the iTunes Music Store, the iPod music player, the iPhone and now the iPad tablet. This shift cemented Apple’s position as one of the dominant players in the consumer technology space. Meanwhile, he sold Pixar to Disney, becoming himself one of the most powerful players in the screen content business.
Jobs’ success can be traced back to the strategic vision he has employed at each stage of his career. Despite being apparently blinded by his zeal to democratise personal computing in the 1980s, it is this focus on selling dreams and experiences rather than products or features, that has translated into the massive success that Apple now enjoys as a technology and media company. He maintains an absolute conviction that his company is delivering a ‘magical’ experience, that all but removes the technological interface and allows users to do what they want intuitively.
This conviction is born of his personal development during the counter-cultural movements of California in the 1960s and 1970s. Frustrated with his studies and his summer job at Hewlett Packard, Jobs dropped out of college and decided instead to travel to India, listen to Bob Dylan and attend classes in typography and design. Through his friendship with Steve Wozniak, he discovered that computers could be a tool that would bring information (and hence, power) to the masses. Each of these experiences has had been profoundly realised throughout his business ventures – from the importance of the graphical user interface and typography in the original Macintoshes, the computer automation of the animation process at Pixar, the open standards and networking developed at NeXT, right up to the digital hub and the focus on proliferating digital music (and later, screen content) at Apple in the 2000s.
Jobs has displayed a willingness to think long-term, and stay out of short-term ‘feature’ arms races with his competitors in order to focus on getting the core experiences right. By doing so, Jobs senses where the market will be in the future, and brings the market along with him. He then surprises his customers with so-called ‘features’ (such as copy-and-paste or multitasking on a phone) that his competitors have boasted about all along, but appear never to have gotten right in as intuitive a manner as Apple delivers. Again, this is apparent with his stoic refusal to ship anything greater than a one-button mouse (despite the fact that the current ‘Magic’ mouse has no buttons, it can still do what many multi-button mice cannot), the introduction of digital rights managed music (and its subsequent removal), a closed vertically-integrated content distribution model with the iPod and iTunes, and third party applications on the iPhone and iPad.
Further, Jobs understood very early on that product design not only matters, but is paramount in the consumer retailing business. While other computer companies sold expandable beige boxes, Apple created candy-shaped and coloured devices that hid the components underneath a well-crafted shell. Despite criticism from outsiders about the ‘closed’ nature of such products, Jobs’ conviction that his customers don’t want technological features but all-in-one experiences that ‘just work’, has resonated with the market. In many ways, this reflects one of the key motivators behind Jobs’ leadership style – decisions should be made on the basis of creating more good, rather than bad, karma.
Self-awareness and lessons from failure
In this vein, one of the keys to Jobs‘ success has been recognising his strengths and understanding himself. This did not come easily to him, for he was an adopted child who did not know his birth parents (who eventually married) and sister until much later in his life. Similarly, he disowned his daughter for many years, until he finally accepted her into his life and named the Apple Lisa (a predecessor of the Macintosh) after her. During the heady early days at Apple, Jobs saw himself as the great mind driving the company, but recognised the fact that he lacked the business acumen and experience to achieve the greatness to which he aspired. Accordingly, he lured John Sculley, formerly CEO of Pepsico, to run Apple with the famous solicitation ‘Do you want to keep selling sugared water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?’
Such presumptive brashness from a man in his twenties eventually led to his expulsion from Apple and the subsequent decade in the technology wilderness. Jobs went from being an overnight young millionaire to being washed up, forced to watch the paradigm he believed he created usurped by what he considered to be an inferior commodity (Microsoft Windows), while the company he built floundered without him. Once again, Jobs was forced to recognise what he had going for him – this time, the wealth he had built up during his time at Apple. He wisely applied this to getting a good deal on Lucasfilm’s computer animation division, and to provide the startup capital for what would become NeXT. In all these ventures, he continues to apply his consistent vision, despite the fact that the world around him had deemed it unworkable, and moved on.
Jobs’ second shot at success came from finally understanding that he had to let go of fights he couldn’t win, in order to focus on the singular experiences he wanted to deliver. Despite railing against the monolithic IBM and shrewd Microsoft for many years, Jobs came to understand that for his company to success, others did not have to fail. On his return to Apple in 1997, he negotiated a deal that ended years of acrimony between Microsoft and Apple and resulted in strategic cooperation and cross-licensing and compatibility agreements that saved Apple from almost certain bankruptcy. Jobs focused on developing software and content solutions for customers rather than trying to be the most accessible hardware vendor. He refocused the product strategy, but also allowed scope for certain ‘hobby’ projects that pushed the envelop of design and application, such as the Powermac Cube and the Apple TV. These ‘hobbies’ started out as apparent white elephants, but provided the basis for new, more popular product applications down the line. Effectively, throughout his return to Apple, Jobs had become the leader he needed to bring in earlier to realise the greatness of the vision for his company.
Despite this intense focus on product development, Jobs himself is aware of the secondary market of rumours, speculation and hype that has built up around the products he delivers. In most cases, he harnesses this hype into a positive force for the company, by maintaining strict silence until the moment at which announcements are made to maximise impact. Further, he has been known to personally answer emails send to his email address on a regular basis and in a frank, matter-of-fact manner, something unheard of for other CEOs.
Team building and communication
Following from this, another key strength of Jobs’ has been recognising that he does not himself possess the technical knowledge or the specific skills in order to realise this vision. While he started off as a tech person, Jobs very quickly transitioned his focus to sales and management.
Accordingly, he needed to bring in the talent to build and ship the products and experiences he dreamed of delivering. Initially, his partnership with Steve Wozniak was one of the most importance of the personal computing era. But that partnership faded with time and the manner in which both left the company. During his wilderness, Jobs’ targeted talented individuals like John Lasseter, who turned Pixar into a hugely successful studio by using both powerful technology and classical storytelling. Following his return to Apple, Jobs discovered and nurtured creative talent such as Jonathan Ive, Apple’s chief product designer, Tony Fadell, the creator of the iPod, and more recently, Tim Cook, the steady hand behind the till as chief operations officer. Despite the public image of a micro-managing megalomaniac, Jobs actually cultivates a carefully constructed team which acts cohesively to realise the Apple vision.
Jobs is also a master communicator. One of the methods in which Jobs inspires not only his team, but also his customer base and the world-at-large, is by telling springboard stories that connect the brand promise and history of the company with the direction in which its business is moving, and how that ultimately relates to new products shipping to consumers. Jobs is effective at keynote speaking, demonstration and sales because he is a great storyteller and an engaging performer. His enthusiasm and conviction is so boundlessly apparent, that he wraps up all present (whether Apple staff, fans, or hardened journalists) in the so-called ‘reality distortion field’, where even the simplest of things appears revolutionary and magical, so engaged are the audience in Jobs’ storytelling. In telling stories, Jobs also uses classical storytelling techniques, such as the rule of threes and the hero’s journey (where the hero is always Apple, and the villain its competitors). As noted earlier, Jobs not only takes the initiative to communicate on a one-to-one basis with his customers, he will also disseminate any important thoughts he has on developing technological issues (such as digital rights management in music or Adobe’s Flash on the iPhone) on a one-to-many basis through the Apple website. Unlike many other CEO, he is so committed to his vision of technological excellence that he is unafraid to make his perspectives public.
Criticisms and Belbin profiles
However, this dedication also carries a number of negative consequences. Jobs’ conviction has been criticised as arrogance blinding him to the demands of the market, and leaving him open to a repetition of the move to irrelevance Apple suffered in 1980s and 1990s. It has been said that Jobs’ working style is dictatorial and slave-driving, and that he cultivates a working environment of fear amongst his employees (who dread riding the elevator with him, for fear they may no longer have a job at the other end).
Further, many criticise the closed, proprietary nature of Apple’s products as anti-competitive, and it has been alleged that Apple’s hyper-secrecy surrounding new products not only stifles free speech, but may have inadvertently caused several workers in Apple’s Chinese manufacturing facilities to take their own lives. Given the publicity given to Jobs’ views, he is also criticised for being hypocritical, dismissing certain features of functionality (such as video on iPods or multitasking on iPhones) as unnecessary and a hindrance on the user experience, only to embrace them in the next generation of his products.
These negative characteristic tend to fit with the ledership styles that can be attributed to Jobs under the Belbin Team Roles test. Jobs can be described in the ‘Thinking’ profile as a ‘Plant’, given his unorthordox creativity and imagination, characterised by the famous ‘Think Different’ slogan he brought to Apple in the late 1990s. He tends to solve problems that his customers don’t even know they have. On the other hand, he does not lower himself to fussing with the nitty gritty details of his products or his customers’ implementation problems. From the ‘Action’ profile, Jobs is very much a ‘Shaper’ in that he has the drive to overcome the many obstacles that have been put in his way, but also tends to be provocative towards others, and can be totally inconsiderate as to their concerns or feelings. In the ‘Social’ profile, Jobs is both a ‘Resource Investigator’ and a ‘Co-ordinator’, as he enthusiastically explores and communicated opportunities, promotes collaborative decision-making and delegation, but can lose enthusiasm with projects that are not working and shirk the blame when projects do not succeed.
On the surface, Steve Jobs has led a charmed life that has led to him having such great success that he has lost touch with the needs of his customers. However, he has in fact suffered great failure during his life, which has enhanced his vision and commitment to the types of technological experiences people actually want in the future. It is this conviction that characterises the leadership style that has made him one of the most important figures in the modern technology and media business and, for better or worse, determines the fate of his respective companies.