Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Steve Jobs, the Original Anti-MBA CEO

I don't usually get teary eyed over the death of CEOs I've never met, but I'll make an exception for Steve Jobs.

Apple products were manna from heaven for tentative technology users like me. They were, and still are, addictive, attractive, intuitive. A little bit of artistic alchemy sitting on a desk, on our laps, and now in the palm of our hands. Steve Jobs fundamentally understood the average computer user, the person who doesn't speak binary and has no interest in learning to do so. The consumer who doesn't care what's underneath a computer's hood as long as it's fun, looks good and drives well. That Mr. Jobs could view technology so innately from the user's perspective made him seem human. A soulful visionary. A Bob Dylan in a DOS-driven world. Today it feels like there will never be another CEO quite like him. Who will make insanely cool stuff now?

The business press will touch on these points much more eloquently in the coming days, but what might be missing from the discussion is just how much of an anti-MBA CEO Jobs was in his prime. Here was a guy who managed from his gut instead of from a spreadsheet. A guy who, when he asked Pepsi-Cola's John Sculley to serve as Apple's CEO in 1983, famously said: "Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?" Sugar water? Change the world? Surely, no modern day MBA-educated person would ever say such hippie dippy things. The focus would be on next quarter's numbers or on annual profitability, not on technological transcendence.

Jobs always refused to be trapped by dogma, which he termed "living with the results of other people's thinking." And what is more dogmatic than a set of rigid MBA business principles? Who wants to sit around all day waiting for someone to spit out another graph, chart or report? Throw that shit out the window, Jobs said through his products, and focus on giving your customers what they don't know they need. And talk to them like people who think and more importantly, feel.

Wired recently ran a story called The Steve Jobs MBA, which seems like an oxymoron if there ever was one. Everything Jobs did ran against the mantras of the management class, from how he designed and marketed his products to how he spoke to the public to how he went about his business, both publicly and privately. He didn't shrink from criticizing his competitors for failing to think big and quite literally, outside the box. Corporate boards fired him. He once said Dell made "un-innovative beige boxes" and that Microsoft and Bill Gates "are a bit narrow. He'd be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger." Ouch.

Although many stories over the years have described Jobs as being a difficult, egomaniacal and temperamental manager, he appeared to give his work teams the necessary leeway to explore new ideas, to dream and to create. He first impetus was to invest in ideas, not to placate investors. Create great products and customers will respond. "The people who are doing the work are the moving force behind the Macintosh," Jobs once said. "My job is to create a space for them, to clear out the rest of the organization and keep it at bay." To clear out the rest of the organization and keep it at bay. Can it get any more anti-MBA than that?

Last year, Forbes magazine ranked Jobs as the 42nd richest American with a net wealth of $8.3 billion. But it never felt like making money was his main motivation, and that's partly what made him so cool to the broader public. There was a presence and a passion behind the products. Steve Jobs and his creations resonated with the public in a way that no amount of financial derivatives or junk-bond fueled corporate mergers ever will. His message always seemed to be that it's great to make money, but it's even better to be insanely great in your vision of how things could be. Who knows, you might just change the world and put a ding in the universe. And you don't need a MBA to do it.

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