Steve Jobs: When salespeople run tech giants it's over

Great tech companies don't let great salesmen become CEOs. Why? They don't know squat about product.

Steve Jobs' parting shot against rivals is notable as he disses Steve Ballmer and a few others from the grave. But the broader message---once the sound bite are put in context---is that salesmen as CEO typically means the death of potentially great companies.

Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs just landed on Amazon's Kindle. The first move for me is to read some of those sound bites in context. Videos have run ahead of the release of Isaacson's book, but it always helps to have the broader picture.

60 Minutes: What did Steve Jobs say about his rivals?

First, Jobs gives Bill Gates some loaded praise. "I admire him for the company he built---it's impressive--and I enjoyed working with him. He's bright and actually has a good sense of humor. But Microsoft never had the humanities in its DNA. Even when they saw the Mac, they couldn't copy it well. They totally didn't get it," said Jobs.

That's the quote we know. The broader theme is that Microsoft is a company in trouble, according to Jobs. Why? Ballmer is running the company.

Enter Jobs' axiom that companies stagnate when sales people run the show.

"I have my own theory about why the decline happens at companies like IBM or Microsoft. The company does a great job, innovates and becomes a monopoly or close to it in some field, and then the quality of the product becomes less important. The product starts valuing the great salesmen, because they're the ones who can move the needle on revenues, not the product engineers and designers. So the salespeople end up running the company."

Jobs noted John Akers at IBM was a great salesman, but didn't know squat about product and failed as a CEO. Xerox had the same progression. John Sculley, the CEO that tossed Jobs in Apple 1.0, was another salesman first executive. Ballmer is another product challenged executive, said Jobs. "I don't think anything will change at Microsoft as long as Ballmer is running it," he said.

The Apple co-founder also had a few words for entrepreneurs. Too many entrepreneurs are launching startups but really only want to sell out. "They're unwilling to do the work it takes to build a real company," said Jobs. Walt Disney did the real work. Intel did the real work. Hewlett and Packard did the real work---at least until recently.

Jobs was clearly thinking about his legacy and Apple's ability to move forward. Apple CEO Tim Cook isn't a salesman either so maybe the company is set. If anything the salesman axiom is worth noting as you evaluate technology companies.


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