The job at Atari exposed him to the earliest generation of video games. It also exposed him to the world business and what it meant build up and run a company. Some years later, with Steve Wozniak, he founded Apple in Silicon Valley (of course in a garage) and quite quickly, although just in his late twenties, grew to be a management phenomenon, featuring in the legendary business book by Tom Peters and Bob Waterman “In Search of Excellence”.
But, in fact, shortly after the book became a bestseller, by the mid 1980s, Apple was in trouble. Although their computers were far ahead of their time in terms of usability – mostly thanks to the Graphical User Interface (based on an idea he had cunningly copied from Xerox) – they were just bloody expensive. Too expensive for most people. For example, the so-called Lisa retailed for no less than $10,000 (and that is 1982 dollars!). John Sculley – CEO – recalled “We were so insular, that we could not manufacture a product to sell for under $3,000.” Steve Jobs was fantastically able to assemble and motivate a team op people that managed to invent a truly revolutionary product, but he also was unable to turn it into profit.
When Jobs was fired from Apple – in 1985 – CEO John Sculley took control. Sculley is often described as a bit of a failure, because “nothing revolutionary came out of Apple under his watch”, “he could have done so much more with the company” and especially for “being stupid enough to boot out a genius like Steve Jobs”. However, the years after Sculley took over were some of Apple’s most profitable. The man did something right, and that was focus on exploiting the competitive advantage that Apple had built up.
In management research, following terminology cornered by the legendary Stanford professor Jim March, we often say that firms have to balance exploration with exploitation. Exploration refers to developing new sources of competitive advantage and growth. Exploitation refers to making money out of them. Steve Jobs was “insanely great” at exploration, but not – at the time – at exploitation. Sculley was.
Now Steve Jobs is a legend. And rightly so; our world literally would have looked different without him. However, what Steve Jobs’ legendary status also tells me is that we – mere mortals – are inclined to overestimate the omnipotence of CEOs. We overdo it when we ascribe the failure of an entire company to just one man or woman (e.g. Enron’s Jeff Skilling) but also when we ascribe the entire success of a company to one individual.
Steve Jobs wasn’t omnipotent (John Sculley had qualities Jobs didn’t) and he wasn’t always right (eating only fruits does not eliminate the need for an occasional shower). His day-to-day influence on Apple over the last years must have been limited, given his rapidly and severely deteriorating health. If anything, he simply would not have been able to be around enough to control and take care of everything. Nevertheless, the company did well in spite of his absence. And of course that is his laudable achievement too; he managed to build a company that could do well without him. And perhaps that may prove to be his best business lesson after all: how a great leader eventually makes himself superfluous.