A Year After Steve Jobs' Death: 8 Career Lessons

Steve Jobs memorial leadership focus

By Nancy Keene

I had a ringside seat during the ramp-up of the personal computer industry -- serving as public relations counsel to CEOs and entrepreneurs who were re-inventing the way we would do business in the modern world. A pretty heady experience this was for me, as a young, non-engineering female, not to mention an amazing learning laboratory.

A key barometer of industry clout was Esther Dyson's PC Forum, where the elite players would convene, preen and be seen.

A year after Steve Jobs' death, it's clear what an amazing figure he was, but even back, it was obvious to all that Steve Jobs was a different kind of cat. He had an aura of cool amid a sea of self-professed tech geeks. He was a marketing impresario, not a programmer. A liberal arts major, not an engineer or MBA. He even dressed differently. (Note blazer and bow tie, forerunner of the black turtleneck, in photo below, the year of Macintosh launch. You can see my back; I am at the left, talking to John Sculley, then CEO.)

Jobs didn't play nice with the other kids. When the industry moved toward standards and compatibility, Apple stood alone with a proprietary system. When the IBM "clones" (Compaq, Dell, HP, DEC et. al.) dominated the high-volume Enterprise sector, the Mac was beloved by students, graphic designers and creatives, a much smaller niche.

Today, Apple reigns as the world's market cap leader and most valuable brand -- with Greenlight Capital's David Einhorn predicting that the stock could eventually reach a valuation in excess of $1 trillion.

Competing in the ultimate leaderboard of brains and brilliance, how did Jobs accomplish this feat? Here are some clues:

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1. Focus.
Instead of letting product lines proliferate or permitting a thousand ideas to bloom, Steve Jobs insisted that Apple focus on just two or three priorities at a time, according to the best-selling biography by Walter Isaacson.

"There is no one better at turning off the noise that is going on around him," said Tim Cook, now CEO. "That allows him to focus on a few things and say no to many things. Few people are really good at that."

Jobs had a rigorous whittle-down process that started in a retreat with the top 100 people in the company. He would stand in front of a whiteboard and, according to the book, ask:

"What are the ten things we should be doing next?" People would fight to get their suggestions on the list. Jobs would write them down and then cross off the ones he decreed dumb. After much jockeying, the group would come up with a list of ten. Then Jobs would slash the bottom seven and announce, "We can only do three."

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2. Buck the trend.
There is a frenetic pace of activity inside companies today. Consider the ferocity of global competition and technologies that enable 24/7 access. Add this jaw-dropping statistic: Since 1989, more than 18 million jobs cuts have been announced, according to the outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray and Christmas.

For those remaining, the mandate is to do more with less. Leaders, managers and individual contributors are straddling unwieldy ranges of responsibilities with minimal support resources -- resulting in fragile bandwidths and decreases in workforce productivity, as reported by PricewaterhouseCoopers Saratoga Group.

At Apple, Jobs did the opposite. He did less with more, i.e., putting more effort into fewer initiatives.

"In order to do a good job of those things that we decide to do, we must eliminate all of the unimportant opportunities."

3. Go for a hit.
My former ad agency colleague Deborah Stapleton worked with Jobs for six years as outside investor relations counsel for Pixel. "He was focused on hits, much like a musical producer. He would always say, we've got to make this a hit." Thus he looked to build in a masterful formula of performance features and design elements that would deliver a high level of market enthusiasm and customer delight. Other companies focused on quantity and variety, pumping out volumes of products and line extensions.

According to the Isaacson book:

"...he would care, sometimes obsessively, about marketing and image and even the details of packaging. 'When you open the box of an iPhone or iPad, we want that tactile experience to set the tone for how you perceive the product.' "

4. Be curious.
Jobs was constantly collecting input from diverse sources, Stapleton reports. "I didn't see him dismiss an idea out of hand," she says. "He listened, evaluated and decided." He explored outside the business/technology box -- with an appreciation for music, creativity and the visual arts. He was influenced by the zen of simplicity.

5. Dump the dogs.
The Newton was Apple's early design for a tablet-sized personal digital assistant. It was ten years in the making, but did not deliver on the goal to re-invent personal computing. When Jobs gained control of the company a second time, he was obsessed with slashing it:

"Shut it down, write it off, get rid of it. It doesn't matter what it costs. People will cheer you if you got rid of it. "

6. Pursue the white space.
By clearing the decks, Jobs could target unoccupied territory that offered high opportunity. Apple was successful in crossing industry lines to penetrate new sectors and create new categories -- a sneak attack on those facing inward in the silos.

The iPod upended the music industry. The iPhone stole business away from mobile, cameras and fired up a whole new market for apps. The iPad became the Big Daddy of gamechangers: eReader. Show-and-tell device. Near laptop functionality. Fit-in-your-purse convenience. It hooked tens of millions of fervent new users into the Apple world. And here's the brilliance of Job's compatibility conundrum: Kludgy syncs with BlackBerries and PCs drove additional migration to iPhone and Mac.

7. Too much can miss the mark.

The writer Malcolm Gladwell, who probed secrets of success in the best-selling book Outliers, suggested in a talk to the Association of American Publishers that many professions need essentially editorial skills. "...We didn't have too little information [before 9/11], we had too much. We needed an editor...to take what mattered and throw out what didn't matter. Fifty years ago, all you needed was a spy plane. Today you need something much more sophisticated--you need an editor."

In another real-world example, Gladwell painted Steve Jobs' great skill as editing down to what was most important. Gladwell said "an expert's job is to place limits and impose standards" and "it's the editor who is the king."

8. Curator of not-invented-yet.
Jobs could see how components of design and innovation could be combined and calibrated to be presented optimally in products that no one ever imagined. He had the genius of creating demand for something you didn't know you wanted -- at a premium price, to boot.

Individually, these strategies are not earth-shattering, but combined, they are transformational. What would work for you?

Nancy Keene is founder of The Perfect Fit leadership consultancy and developer of the Changeometer ™, a framework for strategic decision making based on focus and synergy. www.keeneperfectfit.com

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Taking in all the positives and negatives, you have to admit that he motivates innovation, even if he does not develop it himself.


April 29 2014 at 6:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

#9 Outsource to slave wages in China and not give a damn about working conditions.

October 07 2012 at 12:53 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to dsmith847's comment

No choice, the people and competition require this to compete. If this was not the case, the products would be 3 times more expensive or more. Why just pick on Apple, all the tech and clothing companies do it. DUUHHHH

October 07 2012 at 6:32 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Apple has no choice, they have to do this to compete, the market requires it. If they didn't the products would cost 3 or 4 times more. Why just pick on Apple, all the tech companies do it and many other industries do it also like clothing and shoes. What kind of athletic shoes do you wear, I can guarantee that they were made under worse conditions and whatever brand of computer you have was also made under these conditions. Are you willing to pay the extra cost for made in USA products, I sure doubt it. Just another hypocrite.

October 07 2012 at 6:59 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

#9 Lesson: be a selfish uncaring jerk

October 06 2012 at 11:19 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
3 replies to speweth's comment
dc walker

My first job at 16 was washing dishes at Wooworths.....
My second was as a lawyer's secretary whose typewriter was so archaic that it drove me mad any letter you hit would repeat twenty times.
By the age of 20 I had a job with the State Dpt, two years later was in Vienam.
At 25 went back to college, huge increase in pay, took any job that offered me more than the secretary job I was being offered
Retired with yrly income of over $100,000
you have to take the crappy jobs to know WHAT you don't want and yet you can give this resume to prove you are willing to work.

October 06 2012 at 5:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to dc walker's comment

In nearly every job I ever had, I didn't get paid to do the actual work, I got paid because
of something like this. They knew the typewriter was junk and irritating, they knew their equipment was junk, they knew the boss was an idiot. They weren't paying me to work, they were paying me to deal with
as you call it "The crap". But, these are the best jobs you can have. For one thing, nobody is biting at your heals, so you can sleep at night. I took some of the money I made from those jobs and invested it in Exxon Mobil, Wal Mart, Paramount Pictures, etc. And I built a laboratory. Now, on paper, I'm the wealthiest person on Earth. JUst because the people you work for can't see the gold, doesn't mean you can't.

October 07 2012 at 8:41 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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