There are a ton of business books published every year that describe how to lead, how to develop strategy, how to build companies that last, some that are good, some that are great and a few that are memorable. But nothing like a book that I had been meaning to read for a long time and just finished. Walter Isaacson’s biography of that mercurial, volatile, charismatic, reviled by some, loved by some and respected by all builder of the most valuable company in the world, “Steve Jobs”, rates up there among one of the best business books I have read. I realize now after reading this book, how I, as billions of other people on this planet, came to assimilate the genius of his thinking and evolve into a household that has adopted all Apple devices and a has become a long term investor in its shares. And to add a personal note, I was also happy to read of the impact that India had on him from his teenage days, in separating the essential from the superfluous, in his unique design philosophy.
Woven into the fascinating story of the rise, fall and rise again of this iconic company, is the story of the vicissitudes in the life of this complex man, at one a genius and also by his own candid admission a painfully brusque & brutal boss, described by himself with a 7 letter word that can’t be repeated in a professional forum. Is emotional intelligence over hyped? You wonder as you read about his manipulation, mercenary ruthlessness and Boolean view of world divided into things that “completely suck” or are “insanely great”. And then you realize that many of his associates spent decades with him, loved him inspite of his frailties and were inspired by his relentless drive to perfect a product. There was much about him that was unique, but if one boils it down to the essence, his purity, drive for simplicity, barnacle like adherence to core principles was what enabled him to build iconic and industry changing products that even a 6 year illiterate kid in Colombia could start using in a minute.
So what are the key learnings that I took away? There were a ton of them but in the interest of brevity, I will limit it to a few.
Develop a passion to create great products:
Jobs was legendary on his focus on developing great products. Clearly the reason Apple is where it is, is because people fell in love with his products. And that translated into enormous growth over the years. Those who are in business to make money, are in his challenging words to John Sculley, “selling sugared water, not changing the world”. The commitment to perfection and to surprise and please the customer with simplicity separates Apple from the others. I admit I find it hard to throw away the box that the phone or Mac come packaged in. It is the passion that makes Italians produce the best cars and the best leather goods in the world. And to me that applies not only to products but processes as well. To make a business great and lasting both product and process need to be interwoven with the best people to realize a world changing organization like Apple.
Stick to your convictions even when the going gets tough:
Jobs’s conviction about having a closed system of integrating hardware and software in one package and retaining control over the whole customer experience was atypical in the industry. Jobs’ view that the Microsoft and Google philosophy of open licensing led to mediocre products and inconsistent customer experience, is one of the great central debates of the book. To his credit Jobs never wavered from this view even when Apple’s market share fell as Windows computers proliferated. The result is the ecosystem of the Mac computers, the tablets. iPhones, iTunes, iCloud and iWatch which forces people to stay within the family. I suspect many like me have slowly converted to the Apple ecosystem because of the interoperability and the consistency of the experience. The other example where he stuck to his mission and reaped enormous success with Pixar underscores his success in picking ideas and people and delivering on the vision. Even when Pixar was financially strapped he did not deviate from the idea of making extraordinary animation.
Learn from your failures:
Probably no business person has so spectacularly succeeded, failed and then remerged as a Phoenix to scale even greater heights. Failures, it is said, is the greater predictor of future success unless one learned nothing from the experience. Jobs never hired a pure consumer marketer like Sculley again, understanding that the when you build great products, consumers will always come. When he realized the PowerPC chip from IBM was not efficient on power use leading to shorter battery life, he bet the farm in migrating to the Intel family of processors. No other company in the tech industry has managed a switch like this successfully which entailed in effect rewriting the operating system. As a leader I think the focus he gained from his life experiences is something to admire, in terms of prioritizing the important and ignoring everything else. Having spent some time in my career at Sony, one of the reasons for the transfer of dominance from Sony to Apple, was the inability of Sony to learn from its mistakes in integrating the technology with the interface, which Apple accomplished with such aplomb.
Be positive even in the most difficult of circumstances:
As the poignant story of his battle with cancer unfolds in the book, I was struck by his comment towards the very end of his struggle. When the doctors told him that there was a chance that cancer could become at some point a chronic disease that could be managed until a person died of other more natural causes, his comment to Walter was that ” either he will be one of the first patients that reached the shore or the last that got dumped in the water”. It really captured his continuous focus on the future than on the past. What resonated very strongly with me is a view of the rationale of our existence and the meaning of life itself. I view life like nature not having stasis, you either grow or you decay. Jobs in his thoughts about his legacy uses a Bob Dylan quote, that “if you are not busy being born, then you are busy dying”.
So what about the legacy we leave behind as leaders? One of my business school professors used to say that “it takes tremendous effort to build a company and a reputation, but it is very easy to bring it down”. In the end what endures and carries our work forward is not what we built but the legacy of people and culture that we leave behind. The team that carries the DNA forward perpetuates the species. And in that sense Steve Jobs, left a great set of people and a culture of innovation and design purity behind to carry on his vision and that is why I continue to be a shareholder of this great company. And by the way, as you can see I loved the book and I am sure you will. Happy reading!