Are Steve Jobs' management skills a corporate risk?

Are Steve Jobs' management skills a corporate risk?

Summary: We all know that Apple CEO Steve Jobs is a revered figure in the consumer electronics industry for pushing the envelope and getting filthy rich doing it.But does the magic of Apple product success hide a poor business manager?

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We all know that Apple CEO Steve Jobs is a revered figure in the consumer electronics industry for pushing the envelope and getting filthy rich doing it.

But does the magic of Apple product success hide a poor business manager?

Can one bad apple spoil the bunch?

In a post on his "Practically Radical" blog on Harvard Business Publishing's website, entrepreneur and author Bill Taylor lays down why Steve Jobs' legacy is not unlike criticism of Apple products: much hype, less substance. Initially praising Jobs for the products Apple designs and the "near-religious devotion" instilled in its fans, Taylor goes on to say that Jobs has created revolutionary impact with "unappetizing and downright retro" management tactics.

Taylor:

Jobs, for all of his virtues, clings to the Great Man Theory of Leadership — a CEO-centric model of executive power that is outmoded, unsustainable, and, for most of us mere mortals, ineffective in a world of non-stop change. A Wired magazine cover story from last year made the point well. The article begins with a memorable anecdote — the CEO, in search of a space in the company's crowded parking lot, regularly leaves his Mercedes in a handicapped space, sometimes taking up two spaces. The pattern became so noticeable that employees, according to the article, put notes on his windshield that read, Park Different.

"Jobs' fabled attitude toward parking", writer Leander Kahney says, "reflects his approach to business: For him, the regular rules do not apply." That means shrouding his company in secrecy; treating his employees to tyrannical outbursts; and refusing basic accommodations that would make beautifully designed products more customer-friendly.

Taylor goes on to talk about the "smartest guy in the room syndrome" as it pertains to management at the CEO level. "Humility is not part of the Steve Jobs leadership repertoire — and that's worked out fine for him," Taylor writes, adding that fellow CEOs would be wise not to emulate Jobs' example.

"Don't think you'll do better as a leader by acting more like Apple's leader," Taylor writes. "Trust the art, not the artist."

In his article, Taylor simultaneously takes issue with Jobs' management style and puts it on a pedestal for the success it has brought Apple as a company. But where does one draw the lines? At what point is such behavior detrimental to the company?

ZDNet's own Jason D. O'Grady recently wrote in "Apple's Secret Society" how Apple specifically forbids employees from talking about unannounced products:

Violation is grounds for dismissal and Apple has been known to take legal action personally against the offending employee. Apple closely monitors all communication on its corporate network and routinely plants false information with employees in an effort to track leaks.

O'Grady adds that Jobs' lack of admission to his liver transplant may complicate relations with Apple's board of directors. To me, that's just one more example of Jobs' reported attitude that "regular rules need not apply." Yet CEOs are supposed to be the face of the company, and such actions no doubt reflect poorly on the organization.

If a CEO is successful despite brash management skills, does it matter? Are Steve Jobs' moves a risk to Apple -- or the consumer electronics industry as a whole?

Topics: Apple, CXO, Hardware, Mobility, IT Employment

Andrew Nusca

About Andrew Nusca

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. During his tenure, he was the editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation.

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43 comments
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  • Claim the successes, pass the loses

    It appears to work well for Apple at the moment, and if employess wish to take the abuse with the benefits, it is their choice.

    If the problems Apple is seeing as of late with their hardware continues, and sales decline or the technology falls behind, then things may change, but not at the moment, as things are going well.

    Just throw the man his bones, yes him, praise him, but when he is gone, [i]then[/i] throw away the less then stellar ideas and move on.
    GuidingLight
  • You don't seem to understand

    Bill Taylor simply meant that Jobs is one extraordinary
    individual with incredible successes e.g. at Apple, but that
    doesn't mean that other CEOs should imitate him like the rest
    of the industry have been trying to copy almost every gadget
    and Mac Apple has produced.

    Apple is Apple and Jobs is Jobs, other CEOs should try to
    think themselves instead.
    Mikael_z
    • You nailed it

      Bingo--you win the prize!

      Jobs' management style is absolutely not a best practice and violates no shortage of modern management tenets. It works for him, but there are many, many examples of organizations where such an approach has caused significant harm.
      ParrotHead_FL
  • Is he really setting Apple's direction?

    Or is he merely a great salesman who makes it look like he is? I suspect the latter.

    Not that his salesmanship isn't a great asset that is at risk of loss, but he's not down in the trenches designing hardware and user interfaces. He may give his opinion, but he's hardly the only person capable of doing that. In fact I'd wager that the most important decisions with regard to product design are made several levels below Jobs. Jobs just gives it the final polish by convincing you how great it is. And yes that is not easy, but there are other great salespeople in this world.

    The only thing you lose by losing him is a great salesman who also happens to be a founder of the company.
    Michael Kelly
    • He is this generation PT Barnum

      He is all smoke and no real substance. The House that he built at Apple will fall again as before. 3 more years nad the countdown continues.
      CrashPad
      • Spelling!

        And in three years you'll still be posting garbage with spelling mistakes!

        I just spotted a turd you forgot to polish.
        Graham Ellison
        • RE: Spelling!

          It's nice to have a grammar/spelling monitor to make sure everyone spells correctly. I know it doesn't matter what the idea is; forget that. Everyone must SPELL CORRECTLY!
          jlutgring
          • Spelling, grammar, and intellectual rigor

            While nice in theory, and striking a great egalitarian tone, in general
            spelling rigor and intellectual acuity go hand in hand. You will be hard
            pressed to find a post that is both replete with spelling and grammar
            errors, while at the same time being intellectually compelling and
            competently reasoned. If not for any other reason than that spell
            checkers abound, and the intellectual laziness inherent in not using one
            is symptomatic of a more general intellectual paucity that seldom leads
            to great or original ideas.
            (None of this, of course, applies per se to non-native English speakers,
            but that is often easily determined from the post.)
            SpiritusInMachina
    • You have no idea?

      By all accounts, Steve Jobs has always been deeply involved in user
      interfaces, every strategic product decision. Apple retail stores and
      just about every other design detail?major and minor. Steve Jobs
      Quotes from Fortune:

      iPhone: Nobody had ever thought about putting operating systems as
      sophisticated as OS X inside a phone, so that was a real question. We
      had a big debate inside the company whether we could do that or not.
      And that was one where I had to adjudicate it and just say, 'We're
      going to do it.

      ?We had a different enclosure design for this iPhone until way too
      close to the introduction to ever change it. And I came in one Monday
      morning, I said, 'I just don't love this. I can't convince myself to fall in
      love with this. And this is the most important product we've ever
      done.'

      Marketing: "We do no market research. We don't hire consultants. The
      only consultants I've ever hired in my 10 years is one firm to analyze
      Gateway's retail strategy so I would not make some of the same
      mistakes they made [when launching Apple's retail stores]. But we
      never hire consultants, per se. We just want to make great products."

      Job's Job: "My job is to not be easy on people. My job is to make them
      better. My job is to pull things together from different parts of the
      company and clear the ways and get the resources for the key
      projects. And to take these great people we have and to push them
      and make them even better, coming up with more aggressive visions
      of how it could be."

      "One of our biggest insights [years ago] was that we didn't want to get
      into any business where we didn't own or control the primary
      technology because you'll get your head handed to you"
      Synthmeister
  • Ah, the lovely glint of ivory towers

    Pay no attention to the company's success. It actually has
    totally crappy management. Now bow down before my genius
    and hire me as a management consultant.
    frgough
  • Every CEO's skills are a corporate risk.

    Every CEO comes to the table with a skill set - strengths and weaknesses. The key is to find the right skill set for the Jobs (pun intended).

    In addition, corporations grow and evolve and the competitive environment changes, therefore the skills required to be a good CEO change over time. Many a CEO have outlived their usefulness by staying on too long. Jobs has obviously done a fabulous job so far. Is he the right CEO as Apple's needs change?

    Time will tell.

    Economister
  • Matching a CEO with a Company

    Steve Jobs is the perfect CEO for Apple, but
    wouldn't do so well at HP or Dell. Nor would Mike
    Dell be worth a damn at Apple.

    Jobs good fit at Apple might be because he was so
    influential in shaping Apple at the start. It might
    also be because Apple isn't another DOS/WIN
    based computer company.

    Jobs has been able to pull together a great team
    who believes in his approach to design. Could you
    see Jonathan Ive working at Dell and having the
    same influence?

    Jobs also learned a very important lesson on the
    need for cash. I think that is one of the main
    reasons why Apple has around $30 Billion in free
    cash. Apple could buy Dell with cash. Apple could
    have bailed out GM. Not a bad lesson to learn,
    especially when the economy turns bad. Apple has
    the cash to maintain R&D and Engineering at high
    levels. How many touchy-feely CEOs can do that?

    For Apple, Steve Jobs is the perfect CEO. The
    years without him prove that.
    Ken_z
  • RE: Are Steve Jobs' management skills a corporate risk?

    Insistence on consistency plus the free advertising achieved by
    almost universal interest in 'what will they do next' has been
    worth the criticism of secrecy and tight security. Apple's brilliant
    operational mode will, have by now, rubbed off on many levels of
    management, as well as employees generally. Watch their third
    quarter results and their back to school momentum - even
    through these rough times.
    cabrach
  • The BLINDERS are Firmly in Place ...

    I find it quite AMAZING that we all live in a country which has a HUGE impact on the world because we do NOT live strictly by democracy but also give our top leader enough power to impose his own character on the country, for a short period of time, and often the rest of the world when the idea has enough merits.

    Generally we consider this representative bent which America has to be a GOOD thing also some times we regret it and SOME of the people regret it ALL of the TIME.

    Do NOT EVER FORGET the Democrat party was the PARTY OF SLAVERY and Lincoln was the FIRST Republican president !!!

    Yet, if we have companies which emulate our representative democracy it is OLD, OUT DATED, BACKWARKS, tastes BAD !!

    I think Jobs decisions about batteries is ABSOLUTELY CORRECT, people that disagree have conclusions based on experiences using laptops like DELL not Macs, and I would not be surprised if Apple gives an upgrade credit allowing people swop their old laptops for a new one and Apple will reuse those aluminum frames for the new models !

    I also still use daily the original 4 Gig iPhone bought when first introduced and I am CONSTANTLY AMAZED by how good the battery is !!!

    MACchine
    • Did you just wake up and decided to...

      post whatever pops into your head, anywhere?
      Economister
      • Ah, yes: The power of beer

        He may still be celebrating the fourth!

        :)
        GuidingLight
    • You think much for yourself??

      Or do you just follow the Apple Party Line?
      CrashPad
    • Yes... but...

      "Do NOT EVER FORGET the Democrat party was the PARTY OF SLAVERY and Lincoln was the FIRST Republican president !!!"

      Now the SOUTH which is still hanging on to the successionist flag and the racism lean Republican. The parties have changed DRASTICALLY.

      If the Republicans of today were like Lincoln, or were the ones fighting for civil liberties... I would be a Republican.
      Metronome49
      • Blinders firmly in place ...

        Take those blinders off and you will see, to your chagrin ...

        ... that the Demonicrats throw slogans against the wall and if something
        sticks they run with it, well sort of it just stays a slogan for the most part.

        And you would see that the Republicans are still creating freedom FOR
        ALL !!!

        MACchine
      • Liberty?

        "Civil Liberties" are covered by the U.S. Constitution. The title of "Chief" doesn't lend itself to "Majority Rule". An "Executive" is a person responsible for the administration of a group or organization. An "Officer" is one who commands or manages. That would be a "CEO" to you little people.

        A "Czar" is like an emperor and "Style" is an expression or quality of imagination and individuality.

        So here we have an op-ed by a frustrated "Writer" who would like to be a "Style Czar" and editorialize from a "Mob Rule" perspective, his ideas of what a "CEO" is. Not a "Chief", not an "Executive", and not an "Officer".

        How whacked is that??
        HMBJR1956