When Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs first came out, executives and business leaders all over the world tried to emulate the man and his management style. They tried to clone everything from the way he presented to his relentless attention to detail. They even bought copies of the book for their management teams to study.
Ever since I’ve been telling people it doesn’t work that way. You simply can’t copy and paste talent and wisdom. It comes from inside and from experience, or not at all.
Lei Jun, CEO of Chinese smartphone startup Xiaomi was such a fan of Jobs he emulates the iconic leader right down to the black shirt and jeans and “one last thing” tease during product announcements. The New York Times called him a Steve Jobs knockoff. Not surprisingly, so are Xiaomi’s products.
While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, it’s not exactly the best way to run a company. As Apple’s (AAPL) former communications veep Allison Johnson put it, “The thing that Steve did better than anyone else is, he was his authentic self,” she told an audience of entrepreneurs, “We don’t need more Apples. We need more you.”
Indeed, successful executives and business leaders are the ones that strive to become the best version of themselves, not a clone of someone else. Likewise, company cultures should reflect their own true DNA, assuming it’s successful.
That said, there are a number of principles that Jobs infused into Apple’s culture that I think are somewhat fundamental to innovative companies and definitely worth understanding. So learn but don’t replicate, as the first philosophy explains quite clearly.
Build a culture that thinks different.
Adherence to the status quo and groupthink are the silent killers of companies and careers. If the success of Silicon Valley innovators like Intel and Apple has taught us anything, it’s that common wisdom – how things are done and how they should be done – should be challenged at every turn.
Once you have a unique culture that works, you want to use it as a model for new-hires, teach it to newcomers, and reinforce that behavior throughout the organization, from top to bottom.
As Tim Cook said in a recent Fast Company interview, everything can change but the core values. He also said Jobs instilled “this nonacceptance of the status quo” through his actions more than his words, an interesting counterpoint to today’s overemphasis on leadership communication.
Make a dent in the universe.
We all get inspiration from role models and ideas from mentors, but at some point each of us has to sort of leave the nest and make our own mark on the world. Jobs famously told the first Macintosh team that they were there to “make a dent in the universe,” which of course they did.
That belief, that each of us has the power to change the world, was central to the way Jobs lived and a core philosophy he instilled in Apple’s culture. Clearly, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Own the customer experience.
Long ago corporate executives learned to focus on their core competencies and outsource the rest. That wholesale abandonment of vertical integration led to widespread horizontal specialization that’s most evident in the personal computer and Google Android ecosystems.
Apple’s core product differentiation is that it alone owns the entire user experience by taking complete responsibility for the software, hardware and services. Even the purchasing and customer service experience. Being vertical is “the magic of Apple,” Cook says, ”Without collaboration, you get a Windows product.”
Small teams are the best innovators.
Our society sees too much in black and white terms. On one end of the spectrum you have iconic leaders like Jobs while on the other you have enormous social collectives. We give both extremes far too much credit. Life happens in shades of gray. When it comes to innovation, the optimal configuration lies somewhere in between.
Cook says Jobs was not the extreme micromanager he was made out to be, that one of his greatest strengths was as a teacher. What he did was “build a culture and pick a great team” so each of those leaders would do the same with their staffs. That’s how Apple has so effectively replicated its success as the company scaled.
Apple leverages the collaborative and innovative power of small teams.
Make the best, not the most.
Cook calls the technology industry’s obsession with having the most clicks, active users, and unit sales “almost a disease.” Jobs, however, wasn’t focused on making the most but on making the absolute best products. That core philosophy permeates the company and everything it does. It explains why Apple makes so few products.
That’s also how the company has the discipline to make bold decisions like changing connectors and storage media, decisions that are not necessarily popular at the time. Cook says, “You have to be willing to lose sight of the shore and go.” He also says Microsoft’s problem is that it doesn’t “walk away from legacy stuff.” He’s absolutely right, that’s why the PC has always suffered from complexity and security issues.
More than anything, those five core principles made Steve Jobs and Apple the game-changing innovators they became. And while you can’t replicate what they did or change the world exactly as they did, these insights can play a role in building a career and a company that is as uniquely and genuinely yours.