What can Middle Market firms learn from Steve Jobs & Apple?

I had started reading the biography of Steve Jobs some months ago.  It’s a long book…..on a recent vacation trip to Yellowstone National Park and other beautiful places out West…..I was able to finish the story.  Among the beauty of our National Parks I could not help but think about what differentiates people, leaders, and companies from each other. 

Not surprisingly…..I think there is much to learn from this complex person and company.  Even for those in the Middle Market.  Some of the insights that struck me include:

 – Follow your own path – not necessarily that of others
   Jobs was a person with rebellious habits and a disdain for authority or the rules.  It sure helps to differentiate if you approach your products, your services, different from the rest.

 – Develop your own drive & passion
   Jobs had a need for perfection and a love for product.  His was a curious blend of technology & art….an appreciation based on studying other cultures.

 – Drive for simplicity & create a focus
   Jobs learned much of this from his years of living in India and studying the Zen lifestyles & principles.  It was not about accumulating material possessions but rather getting comfortable with the inner self.
In firms, it is much easier to add projects or products and lose focus or priorities.  He was obsessive about eliminating choices, …products… and creating a priority on just 3 or 4!!  This helped drive clarity through the firm. 

– Challenge your people….even more than they would themself
  To those that did not understand Jobs…he seemed arrogant and abusive.  He either loved your recommendation or said it was “crap”   in no uncertain terms.  This was not personal.  His belief was that people truly did not understand how much they could really accomplish.

 He believed that A players wanted to be around A players.  And B or C players (mediocre or inferior) will be comfortable around other B or C players and lower their expectations.  He challenged people to do things that they believed were impossible…..somehow, they actually achieved them. 

 –  Drive for an enduring company and not profits
 His drive was to create a lasting enterprise…..one that could create innovation and change the world.  The way that people used or interfaced with technology & tools.  Not a drive to maximize profits. 

Unfortunately he died too young.  Because of some of his extreme habits….of vegetarian and homeopathic beliefs….he rejected the medical prescription of chemotherapy and surgery until it was too late for his cancer.  A sad ending to a remarkable and different life.  His contributions will last for generations in a new way to use technology in our lives and that of our children. 

So, consider which of the above principles might just apply to your firm.  You might surprise yourself and your people. 

Memo to the Modern COO

Here is an interesting insight from the Blog of Seth Godin. 

It questions the old prototype of command & control.  Focus on decreasing costs & increasing productivity.  Or the newer servant leadership approach of increasing alignment & decreasing fear.

Which would help your future to be more effective?  Read more below:

Why is it so hard for organizations to understand what Tony did with customer service at Zappo’s? Instead of measuring the call center on calls answered per minute, he insisted that the operators be trained and rewarded to take their time and actually be human, to connect and make a difference instead of merely processing the incoming.

People hear this, see the billion dollars in goodwill that was created, nod their heads and then go back to running an efficient call center. Why?
In the industrial era, the job of the chief operating officer revolved around two related functions:

  • Decrease costs
  • Increase productivity

The company knew what needed to be done, and operations was responsible for doing it. Cutting costs, increasing reliability of delivery, getting more done with less–From Taylor on, the job was pretty clear.

In the post-industrial age, when thriving organizations do something different tomorrow than they did yesterday, when the output is connection as much as stuff, the objectives are very different. In today’s environment, the related functions are:

  • Increase alignment
  • Decrease fear

Alignment to the mission, to the culture, to what we do around here–this is critical, because in changing times, we can’t rely on a static hierarchy to manage people. We have to lead them instead, we have to put decision making power as ‘low’ (not a good word, but it’s left over from the industrial model) in the organization as possible.

As the armed forces have discovered, it’s the enlisted man in the village that wins battles (and hearts and minds) now, not the general with his maps and charts. Giving your people the ability to make decisions and connections is impossible in a command and control environment.

And a decrease in fear, because this is the reason that we’re stuck, that we fail, that our best work is left unshipped. Your team might know what to do, might have an even better plan than the one on the table, but our innate fear of shipping shuts all of that down.

So we go to meetings and wait for someone else to take responsibility. We seek deniability before we seek impact. The four-letter word that every modern organization must fear is: hide.
Our fear of being wrong, of opening up, of creating the vulnerability the leads to connection–we embrace that fear when we go to work, in fact, that’s the main reason people take a job instead of going out on their own. The fear is someone else’s job.
Except now it’s not.