Firing Steve Jobs
Two big stories have come out recently that appear to be in stark contrast to each other: Apple’s emergence as the most valuable tech company on the planet and John Sculley’s speaking out on firing Steve Jobs back in 1985.
What’s interesting is that so many of the character flaws that led the board to oust Jobs 25 years ago are still present today. In fact he remains infamous for them. Then, as now, Jobs was brilliant and petulant, inspiring and frustrating. With Jobs at the helm, the question remains whether Apple’s success will perpetuate or be just another peak in a roller coaster career.
It’s a question worth asking and, whatever the answer, there are lessons there for all of us.
Why Jobs was Fired
While getting rid of Jobs seems incredibly stupid now, it was far from condemned at the time. As this article makes clear, Jobs behavior was abhorent and he wasn’t showing results. By all accounts, he was temperamental and erratic. It seems unlikely that any corporate board would have kept him on.
Moreover, the board was not made up of corporate stooges, but some very competent people who agonized over the decision. John Sculley, the CEO, was earlier the mastermind behind the fantastically successful Pepsi Challenge, which was instrumental in catching up to arch-rival Coke.
It’s also important to note that Apple seemed to prosper without Jobs. During Sculley’s tenure from 1983-1993, revenues grew tenfold, from $800 million to $8 billion. They launched the groundbreaking PowerBook and had other triumphs. It wasn’t until the mid-90’s, or roughly a decade after Jobs’ departure, that Apple really began to falter.
Jobs Years in the Wilderness
After Apple, Jobs had a somewhat mixed record. His NeXT computer was hailed as a technological triumph (Tim Berners-Lee wrote the first web code on one) but not a commercial success. It was ahead of its time, but way too expensive to be practical. The hardware division was eventually scrapped and NeXT became exclusively a software company.
He had, of course, better luck with Pixar, which became a runaway success. Their first film, Toy Story, changed the animated genre forever and was followed by an impressive string of hits. Among other accomplishments, Pixar has won 24 Oscars and grossed billions at the box office.
However, even this success was tarnished by Jobs’ falling out with the equally mercurial Michael Eisner, which nearly caused the important Disney partnership to collapse. This altercation, however, ended happily for Jobs when Pixar was acquired by Disney, giving him 7% of the stock and making him the largest shareholder of the combined company.
The Triumphant Return
Despite the commercial failure of NeXT computer, the company had built an operating system consequential enough to make it an attractive acquisition target. In 1996, roughly a decade after Jobs ouster, Apple acquired NeXT and Jobs returned as an advisor. In a little over a year, he became CEO.
The rest, as they say, is history. The performance and styling of the iMac rejuvenated the desktop business. This was then followed by the iPod, iPhone and iPad, all of which redefined their categories. Jobs today is undoubtedly the world’s most admired CEO.
However, the question remains: Will he flameout again? Is the roller coaster ride over and smooth sailing ahead? I would suggest that the answer isn’t nearly as clear cut as many would believe.
Enron, in its time, was also one of the world’s most valuable companies with a history of innovation and a charismatic CEO. While I don’t believe Apple is another Enron, the point stands. The mighty can fall – and fast.
As Much as Things Change, They Still Stay the Same
One of the things that is striking when you hear stories about the old Steve Jobs is how similar he seems to the new Steve Jobs. He’s still the same illustrious, combative and capricious man he always was.
I’ve written before about how Jobs’ habit of following his own star is an enormous strength, but it’s a weakness too, perhaps even a fatal one.
What was the point in starting a public feud with Adobe over flash? While he can’t be faulted for favoring HTML5, which is a W3C recommendation and therefore the most likely future standard, why the public histrionics? Many companies are moving toward HTML5 without making negative headlines. (For a fairly non-technical explanation of the issue, see here).
He now seems to be pursuing a similar clash with Google and who knows who will be next. It’s clear that Jobs does not back down from a fight or a slight. What is not clear is to what end?
As I wrote in a previous post, one of the dangers of dominance is that you encourage others to build coalitions against yourself. Jobs seems to revel in doing so, and that’s dangerous – even for Steve Jobs.
That he still displays the same character flaws that led to trouble in the past does not bode well for Apple.
Lessons to Learn
What the future holds for Steve Jobs and Apple is anybody’s guess. They could go on to even greater success (although that’s hard to imagine) but it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the creation of too many enemies combined with the inevitable stumble (everybody has them eventually) could cause them to tumble from their pedestal.
Nevertheless, even before knowing how the story ends, there is still a lot we can learn from the ongoing Steve Jobs soap opera.
Don’t be a Jerk: As a manager, I’ve found that Robert Sutton’s rule is worth following and learned to get rid of difficult people quickly, no matter what their supposed talents. They inevitably cause more problems than they solve and I haven’t once regretted their departure.
Jobs, of course, is an exceptional case, but I have the feeling that if the board had it to do over they would fire him again. They were acutely aware of his talents, they just couldn’t work with him (and many people in Silicon Valley still feel the same way). Despite 20/20 hindsight, I don’t fault the board one bit for sacking him.
Focus on What’s Important: It’s clear that getting fired was anguishing for Jobs. It is also equally apparent that it didn’t have to happen. There was little utility in his erratic behavior, even for himself. It was pure ego. He did it because he felt he could get away with it.
Conversely, when it comes to products, Jobs seems to prioritize quite well. As I wrote in a previous post, one of the reasons for the iPad’s success is its strategic clarity. It does what it does very well and isn’t cluttered with needless features that add little except weight, price and confusion.
It’s unfortunate that Jobs seems more focused on clashes lately than building the next great product.
In the End, the Product Wins: The reason for Jobs’ and Apple’s, success has been and will always be because the products far outperform others.
Neither the iPod, the iPhone nor the iPad were strategic strokes of genius. They were all launched into categories that were already established. They won because they were demonstrably better than the competition due to a nearly superhuman focus on detail and usability. (Having built technology products, I know what that takes)
Apple’s future will be defined more by it’s products than on who Steve Jobs can insult or how outraged he can get at any imagined slight. Maybe he will continue to gloriously succeed, but it will be in spite of his tantrums, not because of them.
So why is he wasting his time?