Feb 16 2012

Book Short: Steve Jobs and Lessons for CEOs and Founders

Book Short:  Steve Jobs and Lessons for CEOs and Founders

First, if you work in the internet, grew up during the rise of the PC, or are an avid consumer of Apple products, read the Walter Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs (book, kindle).  It’s long but well worth it.

I know much has been written about the subject and the book, so I won’t be long or formal, but here are the things that struck me from my perspective as a founder and CEO, many taken from specific passages from the book:

  • In the annals of innovation, new ideas are only part of the equation. Execution is just as important.  Man is that ever true.  I’ve come up with some ideas over the years at Return Path, but hardly a majority or even a plurality of them.  But I think of myself as innovative because I’ve led the organization to execute them.  I also think innovation has as much to do with how work gets done as it does what work gets done.
  • There were some upsides to Jobs’s demanding and wounding behavior. People who were not crushed ended up being stronger. They did better work, out of both fear and an eagerness to please.  I guess that’s an upside.  But only in a dysfunctional sort of way.
  • When one reporter asked him immediately afterward why the (NeXT) machine was going to be so late, Jobs replied, “It’s not late. It’s five years ahead of its time.”  Amen to that.  Sometimes product deadlines are artificial and silly.  There’s another great related quote (I forget where it’s from) that goes something like “The future is here…it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”  New releases can be about delivering the future for the first time…or about distributing it more broadly.
  • People who know what they’re talking about don’t need PowerPoint.”  Amen.  See Powerpointless.
  • The mark of an innovative company is not only that it comes up with new ideas first, but also that it knows how to leapfrog when it finds itself behind.  This is critical.  You can’t always be first in everything.  But ultimately, if you’re a good company, you can figure out how to recover when you’re not first.  Exhibit A:  Microsoft.
  • In order to institutionalize the lessons that he and his team were learning, Jobs started an in-house center called Apple University. He hired Joel Podolny, who was dean of the Yale School of Management, to compile a series of case studies analyzing important decisions the company had made, including the switch to the Intel microprocessor and the decision to open the Apple Stores. Top executives spent time teaching the cases to new employees, so that the Apple style of decision making would be embedded in the culture.  This is one of the most emotionally intelligent things Jobs did, if you just read his actions in the book and know nothing else.  Love the style or hate it – teaching it to the company reinforces a strong and consistent culture.
  • Some people say, “Give the customers what they want.” But that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!’” People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.  There’s always a tension between listening TO customers and innovating FOR them.  Great companies have to do both, and know when to do which.
  • What drove me? I think most creative people want to express appreciation for being able to take advantage of the work that’s been done by others before us. I didn’t invent the language or mathematics I use. I make little of my own food, none of my own clothes. Everything I do depends on other members of our species and the shoulders that we stand on. And a lot of us want to contribute something back to our species and to add something to the flow. It’s about trying to express something in the only way that most of us know how—because we can’t write Bob Dylan songs or Tom Stoppard plays. We try to use the talents we do have to express our deep feelings, to show our appreciation of all the contributions that came before us, and to add something to that flow. That’s what has driven me.  This is perhaps one of the best explanations I’ve ever heard of how creativity can be applied to non-creative (e.g., most business) jobs.  I love this.

My board member Scott Weiss wrote a great post about the book as well and drew his own CEO lessons from it – also worth a read here.

Appropos of that, both Scott and I found out about Steve Jobs’ death at a Return Path Board dinner.  Fred broke the news when he saw it on his phone, and we had a moment of silence.  It was about as good a group as you can expect to be with upon hearing the news that an industry pioneer and icon has left us.  Here’s to you, Steve.  You may or may not have been a management role model, but your pursuit of perfection worked out well for your customers, and most important, you certainly had as much of an impact on society as just about anyone in business (or maybe all walks of life) that I can think of.