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BW Businessworld

Lessons From The iCon

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When Steven Paul Jobs resigned as the chief executive of Apple on 24 August, his departure — said to be driven by his illness — sparked a less dramatic outcry than his earlier exits. Most reactions were eulogical. And that, perhaps, is ample tribute to his life's work. Fittingly enough, just a few days before Jobs quit, Apple had become the world's largest company by market capitalisation, powered by the astonishing success of its flagship products — the iPad and iPhone. So, any book that claims to reveal the iCon's leadership secrets warrants more than a cursory look.

Now, imagine this situation: you are a top executive in the technology sector switching jobs. The CEO of the company you were planning to join dies in a car accident after celebrating the success of its initial public offering. And then comes a charming 20-something man offering you a job in his technology firm. You tell him that he can't possibly afford you. Yet, you end up joining the company, Apple, led by the maverick youngman named Steve Jobs.

That is how The Steve Jobs Way by Jay Elliot begins. The author was already a veteran when he met Jobs while waiting at a US restaurant. The years he spent at Apple (he calls himself Jobs's ‘left hand' man, a reference to the Apple co-founder's lefthandedness) gave him the perspective of more than a "fly on the wall", as he went with and against some of Jobs's critical decisions that redefined the technology industry. Elliot has documented them in this book, co-authored by William Simon, the author of the bestselling biography of Jobs, iCon.

The book has five parts — Product Czar, Talent Rules, Team Sports, Becoming Cool and On Becoming Stevian. Each section discusses a different aspect of the Steve Jobs phenomenon and the author makes no attempt to mask his unreserved admiration for his former boss. The book reads more like a gushing tribute than a work on leadership style. However, due to the unique perspective of the author, one gets a first-hand account of the story behind several decisions at Apple over the past two decades, from the Macintosh to the iPhone.
Elliot vividly describes Jobs's obsessive focus, which has resulted in building the Apple experience — not just in technology, but also in the user experience at stores, the iTunes interface and more. The reader is also introduced to some key ideas of Jobs about holistic product development and recruiting the best talent and then rallying them on like "pirates" rather than like "the navy" with enticements such as T-shirts and offsites — just two of the many elements of corporate culture familiar to today's workers. While the book does not explicitly dwell on it, what becomes obvious to the reader is also Jobs's ability to reinvent himself to develop products, which are game-changers.

Although Elliot glosses over some of Jobs's notoriously autocratic and somewhat ugly behaviour — perhaps stemming from his obsessive focus — it is not difficult to see occasional evidence. For one, Jobs was not necessarily one to brook opposition of any kind, at least not until his decisions were clearly failing. So there is the disastrous experience on a hardware choice that consumed vital resources before the right one is found. Also his rolling over some of the existing Apple leadership when he returned to the company after NeXT is one such event.
And Jobs' ability to think continuously of his products — and not necessarily of the feelings of his employees — are also on show. Clearly, soft skills were not Jobs's forte. Elliot concludes with a short section on his own experience of trying to be a Stevian. The book is a compelling read more for the fact that it is about Jobs, than because it is a work on leadership styles.

Jobs is recognised as the business leader who had transformed three key industries — computers, telecom and music. A sequel to this book may be in order once the dust settles on the success of the iPad which has started changing the publishing industry already. Perhaps, the much-awaited Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography by Walter Isaacson — due in November this year — will have more of it. Just wait and see.

Author's Details:
Jay Elliot is the CEO and founder of software firm Nuvel. He was the founder and chairman of Migo Software, a mobility software firm and inventor of its flagship product Migo. Elliot spent more than 30 years with IT majors such as IBM, Intel and Apple. He has served as the senior vice- president of corporate business planning reporting to Steve Jobs.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 19-09-2011)