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What was all the fuss about again?
Apple & Steve - Two weeks later
What was all the fuss about?
Within minutes of Steve Jobs resigning almost two weeks ago I received my first text message asking me what I thought about it. Not from an ex-colleague, employee or student – but from my mother. My mother is hardly what one might call a tech-savvy socially networked beacon for hot business trends. Email and text messaging are about as far as she dares to venture into the digital world. Yet the resignation of Steve Jobs immediately captured her attention, as it did millions of other non-tech, non-business people around the world. It is a truly rare thing to see so much media coverage on the resignation of a CEO. Articles, analysis, blogs, tweets – a deluge of commentaries. Why did Steve Jobs departure capture peopleʼs imagination like it did? And what does it really mean for Apple as Tim Cook now settles into the driving seat? It is hard to fathom now, but when Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 he was far from being a proven force. After being ejected from Apple in the 80ʼs his follow-up act, NeXT computer, was hardly a raging success. Pixar was yet to become one of the most successful movie companies of all time, eventually selling to Disney for $7.4 billion (Jobs investment in Pixar was a mere $10 million - an amount that racked up returns most professional investors barely dream of). When Jobs first spoke to us as employees at Apple in 1997 we were tired, fed-up and for the most part ʻrunning on emptyʼ. Years of poor management decisions left us rudderless and confused; Apple was in free-fall. Press articles were damning; clichés such as ʻthe worm in the Appleʼ, ʻthe rotten Appleʼ, ʻfall of an iconʼ did little to inspire motivation. Michael Dellʼs now infamous comment that Apple should simply ʻclose up shop and return any leftover cash to its investorsʼ didnʼt seem like such a bad idea at time. With a mixture of logic, vision and venom for the misdeeds of his more recent predecessorsʼ poor decisions, Steve spoke to us directly, yes sometimes rudely, but always with unshakable determination. A bunch of guys in suits had messed up his company, and now he was taking it back. In one of his opening talks he quipped how upon returning to Apple he found people doing ʻa lot of thingsʼ, and how ʻsome of them are even the right thingsʼ. Clear goals, myopic focus and ruthless prioritization would become core tenets of his success. He set a crystal clear vision: the battle for PC supremacy was over, and Apple would be a niche, design-led, profitable company. Jobs recognized the lack of investment made in the Apple brand, and immediately reversed the trend with the ʻthink differentʼ campaign, a campaign that made zero reference to product. Apple would go on to make great products, but drawing on examples such as the Nike ʻjust do itʼ campaign, and the American Milk Associations hugely successful ʻgot milk?ʼ approach, Jobs refocused Appleʼs advertising on pure brandmarketing. He played to peopleʼs emotions, arguing nobody purchased Apple based on bits & bytes; they purchased based on emotional attachment to the brand and the feelings it evoked (creativity, being different, being cool). Cool was something Apple had lost in its products, before Jobs returned to Apple its products looked pretty much like any other PC. He quickly identified the amazing designers at Apple (whose talents were being squandered in a me-too race with the PC world) and unleashed their real potential. So ended an era of boring, beige, boxy computers and, starting with the iMac, we were
ushered along a lush journey of colorful, sleek, sexy products that made people feel like they held the future in their hands. All that said - lots of companies have cool products and a strong brand; that alone does could never explain Appleʼs success and impact on the world. I believe their true success stems from Jobs simply being an outstanding CEO in every sense - possibly the greatest CEO of all time. The overall steps he took on returning are a textbook guide to building a business. First he examined his available resources and clearly established the core value of the company (brand and design). Then he set a vision that everyone could easily understand (we would be a profitable design-led computer company). Then he lined up people to execute against that vision with a strategy and goals in every area. In one of his most telling early actions Jobs entirely jettisoned the Apple Printing business. A multibillion dollar business that was at the time the only profitable part of the company. Why burn such a bridge when you are cash-strapped? - It did not fit with the overall vision. Few CEOʼs would have resisted the temptation to keep a business like that tipping along. For Jobs however it was a simple decision - we would live or die by putting our collective energy towards making ourselves a profitable design-led computer company. The word ʻprinterʼ did not fit in that vision - so the business was dismantled. Burning bridges keeps the team focused on moving forward with the core strategy. Jobs simultaneously reengineered every constituent part of Apple to make the whole work with breath-taking efficiency. The result is that from design, to supply chain, to finance to channel management, you can study almost any part of Apple and find yourself hardpressed to identify an alternative industry example of how to do it better. Stitch these industry-leading individual components together into one entity, clearly going in one direction, and you have Steve Jobs Apple – something that has become an almost unstoppable force. Despite all the talk on products and brand, he didnʼt just spend all of his time white boarding future game-changers; he spent his time running and building a great company - at every level. How will Tim Cook measure up? He has been at Jobs side for 14 years. He has run Apple as acting CEO for months. None of those cool products would ever have been made if Cook did not devise a strategy to produce them profitably. Heʼs known to recall production yields & outputs right down to line operatorʼs names – itʼs a pretty good bet that Jobs tradition of attention to detail will live on. Given their current position of strength Cook can safely run the Apple machine safely for quite some time to come. All in all on paper things look good. But if you believe Jobs was possibly one of the greatest CEOʼs of all time, a one in a million; then to have a second such CEO take the reins would have to be a one in a billion; long odds even for Apple. Perhaps Cook is a ʻcaretaker CEOʼ, and a future Jobstype CEO (such as Appleʼs design guru Jonathan Ive) is waiting in the wings to step in within 5-10 years with a fresh injection of the overall juice Jobs used to kick-start a dying Apple. While the Apple machine is unlikely to slow down in the short-term, and they have more than enough credit in the bank to make a few mistakes and still recover, neither Cook nor Ive are Steve Jobs, encompassing every attribute one could possibly dream up for the perfect CEO – wrapped in charisma and sprinkled with just the right amount of maverick tendencies. That once-in-a-lifetime combination, backed up by some of the most dazzling business results ever seen, is unlikely to be repeated on the same scale again any time soon.
About the Author: Feargal Mac Conuladh worked in Apple Operations from 1992 until 1999 in both Europe and Cupertino; he then served as Vice-President of Operations at Seiko Epson in Europe and thereafter as Vice-President of Services at Lenovo. He currently works for La Salle University in Barcelona, Spain, where he is Director of Technology running their leading Tech start-up incubation park. He serves as CEO for Securiforest S.L., a cloud start-up, and is involved in several other start-up ventures. Follow on twitter #feargalmac or email to email@example.com
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