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WEB REVIEW: Lessons all leaders should learn from Steve Jobs

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Jim Cota

Allow me to tamper with the usual format of the column this time around. The announcement from Apple CEO Steve Jobs that he’ll step down from his post is not altogether unexpected, but it does mark the end of an era.

When Apple introduced the iPod, Jobs was on stage talking about how people love to take their music with them and were longing to do it again. Cassette tapes didn’t offer the quality, he said, and CDs were just too bulky to manage. I remember thinking, “This is interesting, but who really needs to carry their entire music collection around with them?”

But with almost 300 million iPods sold, the music industry was forced to think about a different business model. Businesses of all kinds are considering how to build “micro-payments” into their revenue streams because iTunes paved the way; new industries and countless businesses have been created to support this type of product delivery in a variety of sectors.

A year or so later, Jobs was back on stage talking about the new line of iMacs.

“The PC will be the digital hub,” he said. Apple began thinking about other things that would be digitized: pictures, movies, files, etc. The company predicted that people would need one central location to handle all these things and built a computer to perform that function—then built a network of retail stores to support them and teach people how to use them. Lesson: When you’re out in front and creating demand (not just reacting to it), you have to teach people how to use the tools you’re providing.

Jobs has been communicating his vision relentlessly to anyone who would listen. Employees heard it enough that it became their vision. Consumers heard it enough that it has become our reality. Consider this: When he returned to Apple Computer in 1996, the company hovered around 4 percent market share in computers. It now has almost 11 percent, while also dominating the MP3 market. Apple created (and owns) the tablet market, and it’s taken 30 percent of smartphones in just three years. Lesson: Vision couldn’t be more important, especially if you can turn your vision into everyone else’s. 

Every time Jobs stepped on stage to deliver his trademark keynote address, millions watched, millions more read live transcripts, and reporters and writers around the globe hung on every word to find out “what’s next.” When was the last time you watched the CEO of any other company do a presentation on his or her latest product announcements?

Jobs has been maligned and mocked for these turtleneck-clad keynote addresses, where he has unveiled products he calls “amazing,” “groundbreaking” and even “magical.” But the truth is, many of these products were those things and more. Lesson: You have to believe in what you’re doing more than anyone else. You have to allow that passion to flow in everything you do, and say, and write.

While working on the iPad, Apple was experimenting with touchscreens. At some point in this process, it realized the technology would allow for building a phone without a separate number pad. This one simple insight opened doors to a new universe of thinking. Without the keypad, Apple could make the screen larger; with a larger screen, it could present significantly more data; with more presentation room, it could ‘fix’ many of the things that don’t work well on a phone. Apple rightly recognized that the smartphones, as they existed in 2006, were essentially broken. The majority of people using their phones were perfectly satisfied with them. But like a lion born in captivity, they didn’t know what they were missing. So how can you convince people to change when they aren’t feeling any pain?

Most people avoid change. We’re comfortable where we are, thank you, and changing just about anything can be such a hassle. In fact, there are probably few things more of a hassle than changing your phone carrier or your operating system. But if the incentive is good enough, people will change. 

It also helps to look good.

For nearly every Apple product you’ve held in your hand and thought, “This is a thing of beauty,” Jonathan Ive has been the principal designer. While other manufacturers worked to hit specific price points, Apple quietly went about creating things that were beautifully imagined, painstakingly built, and just worked. What it found out is that people will pay the premium to own these things. Question: What can you do to incorporate this thinking into your world? What product or service can you deliver better, not just better than your primary competitor, but better than anyone else? How can you weave quality into everything you do?

At some point, we all need to exit, stage left. How and when isn’t always left up to us. In Jobs’ case, he has always maintained that he would step down as soon as it was clear he was unable to continue. The market will likely take note of his departure and the stock price is almost certain to take a hit. But he leaves his company in great shape. Tim Cook, who has performed brilliantly as COO, will take over as CEO. Ive is still there to lead industrial design. The entire management team is composed of key people performing key functions very well.

Over the past 14 years, Jobs has been roaming the halls, touting his vision, infecting people with his passion, and challenging people to build the best products in the world. Now his credo has become theirs, and the company is in position to continue doing exactly what it’s been doing the last decade.

Ultimate lesson: Your primary job is to build something that can thrive without you. Start today.

__________

Cota is creative director of Rare Bird Inc., a full-service advertising agency specializing in the use of new technologies. His column appears monthly. He can be reached at jim@rarebirdinc.com.

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  • Spoken like...
    Spoken like a true apple zombie.
    Apple gets an A+ in marketing to the sheeple, but an EPIC FAIL in technology.
    Their products make NO business sense at all.
    Half the performance for twice the price. They are not compatible with any standard software, formas or equipment.
    Let's look at the ipad for example:
    No Java, No Flashm, No SD, No USB, No Bluetooth, No HDMI, No Widescreen, No Multi-tasking. Apple charges way too much for the SDK (app programming).
    Droid solves ALL of these problems.
    I just don't understand why people are dumb enough to buy into this shoddy stuff.
    Apple Sucks.

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