Why Steve Jobs Couldn't Find a Job

by Adam Hartung

Why Steve Jobs Couldn't Find a JobBusiness people keep piling onto the innovation and growth bandwagon. PWC just released the results of its 14th annual CEO survey entitled Growth Reimagined. Seems like most CEOs are as tired of cost cutting as everyone else, and would really like to start growing again. Therefore, they are looking for innovations to help them improve competitiveness and build new markets. Hooray!

But, haven’t we heard this before? Seems like the output of several such studies – from IBM, IDC and many others – have been saying that business leaders want more innovation and growth for the last several years! Hasn’t this been a consistent mantra all through the last decade? You could get the impression everyone is talking about innovation, and growth, but few seem to be doing much about it!

Rather than search out growth, most businesses are still trying to simply do what their business has done for decades – and marveling at the lack of improved results. David Brooks of the New York Times talks at length in his recent Op Ed piece on the Experience Economy about a controversial book from Tyler Cowen called The Great Stagnation. The argument goes that America was blessed with lots of fertile land and abundant water, giving the country a big advantage in the agrarian economy from the 1600s into the 1900s. During the Industrial economy of the 1900s America was again blessed with enormous natural resources (iron ore, minerals, gold, silver, oil, gas and water) as well as navigable rivers, the great lakes and natural low-cost transport routes. A rapidly growing and hard working set of laborers, aided by immigration, provided more fuel for America’s growth as an industrial powerhouse.

But now we’re in the information economy. Those natural resources aren’t the big advantage they once were. Foodstuffs require almost no people for production. And manufacturing is shifting to offshore locations where cheap labor and limited regulations allow for cheaper production. And it’s not clear America would benefit even if it tried maintaining these lower-skilled jobs. Today, value goes to those who know how to create, store, manipulate and use information. And success in this economy has a lot more to do with innovation, and the creation of entirely new products, industries and very different kinds of jobs.

Unfortunately, however, we keep hiring for the last economy. It starts with how Boards of Directors (and management teams) select – incorrectly, it appears – our business leaders. Still thinking like out-of-date industrialists, Scientific American offers us a podcast on how Creativity Can Lesson a Leader’s Image. Citing the same study, Knowledge @ Wharton offers us A Bias Against ‘Quirky’ Why Creative People Can Lose Out on Creative Positions. While 1,500 CEOs say that creativity is the single most important quality for success today – and studies bear out the greater success of creative, innovative leaders – the study found that when it came to hiring and promoting businesses consistently marked down the creative managers and bypassed them, selecting less creative types!

Our BIAS (Beliefs, Interpretations, Assumptions and Strategies) cause the selection process to pick someone who is seen as less creative. Consider these comments:

  • “Would you rather have a calm hand on the tiller, or someone who constantly steers the boat?”
  • “Do you want slow, steady conservatism in control – or irrational exuberance?”
  • “Do we want consistent execution or big ideas?”

These are all phrases I’ve heard (as you might have as well) for selecting a candidate with a mediocre track record, and very limited creativity, over a candidate with much better results and a flair for creativity to get things done regardless of what the market throws at her. All imply that what’s important to leadership is not making mistakes. Of you just don’t screw up the future will take care of itself. And that’s so industrial economy – so “don’t let the plant blow up.”

That approach simply doesn’t work any more. The Christian Science Monitor reported in Obama’s Innovation Push: Has U.S. Really Fallen Off the Cutting Edge that America is already in economic trouble due to our lock-in to out-of-date notions about what creates business success. In the last 2 years America has fallen from first to fourth in the World Economic Forum ranking of global competitiveness. And while America still accounts for 40% of global R&D spending, we rank remarkably low (on all studies below 10th place) on things like public education, math and science skills, national literacy and even internet access! While we’ve poured billions into saving banks, and rebuilding roads (ostensibly hiring asphalt layers) we still have no national internet system, nor a free backbone for access by all budding entrepreneurs!

Ask the question, “If Steve Jobs (or his clone) showed up at our company asking for a job – would we give him one?” Don’t forget, the Apple Board fired Steve Jobs some 20 years ago to give his role to a less creative, but more “professional,” John Scully. Mr. Scully was subsequently fired by the Board for creatively investing too heavily in the innovative Newton – the first PDA – to be replaced by a leadership team willing to jettison this new product market and refocus all attention on the Macintosh. Both CEO change decisions turned out to be horrible for Apple, and it was only after Mr. Jobs returned to the company after nearly 20 years in other businesses that its fortunes re-blossomed when the company replaced outdated industrial management philosophies with innovation. But, oh-so-close the company came to complete failure before re-igniting the innovation jets.

Examples of outdated management, with horrific results, abound. Brenda Barnes destroyed shareholder value for 6 years at Sara Lee chasing a centralized focus and cost reductions – leaving the company with no future other than break-up and acquisition. GE’s fortunes have dropped dramatically as Mr. Immelt turned away from the rabid efforts at innovation and growth under Welch and toward more cautious investments and reliance on a set of core markets – including financial services. After once dominating the mobile phone industry the best Motorola’s leadership has been able to do lately is split the company in two, hoping as a divided business leadership can do better than it did as a single entity. Even a big winner like Home Depot has struggled to innovate and grow as it remained dedicated to its traditional business. Once a darling of industry, the supply chain focused Dell has lost its growth and value as a raft of new MBA leaders – mostly recruited from consultancy Bain & Company – have kept applying traditional industrial management with its cost curves and economy-of-scale illogic to a market racked by the introduction of new products such as smartphones and tablets.

Meanwhile, leaders that foster and implement innovation have shown how to be successful this last decade. Jeff Bezos has transformed retailing and publishing simultaneously by introducing a raft of innovations, including the Kindle. Google’s value soared as its founders and new CEO redefined the way people obtain news – and the ads supporting what people read. The entire “social media” marketplace is now taking viewers, and ad dollars, from traditional media bringing the limelight to CEOs at Facebook, Twitter and Linked-in. While newspaper companies like Tribune Corp., NYT, Dow Jones and Washington Post have faltered, pop publisher Arianna Huffington created $315M of value by hiring a group of bloggers to populate the on-line news tabloid Huffington Post. And Apple is close to becoming the world’s most valuable publicly traded company on the backs of new product innovations.

But, asking again, would your company hire the leaders of these companies? Would it hire the Vice-President’s, Directors and Managers? Or would you consider them too avant-garde? Even President Obama washed out his commitment to jobs growth when he selected Mr. Immelt to head his committee – demonstrating a complete lack of understanding what it takes to grow – to innovate – in today’s intensely competitive information economy. Where he should have begged, on hands and knees, for Eric Schmidt of Google to show us the way to information nirvana he picked, well, an old-line industrialist.

Until we start promoting innovators we won’t have any innovation. We must understand that America’s successful history doesn’t guarantee it’s successful future. Competing on bits, rather than brawn or natural resources, requires creativity to recognize opportunities, develop them and implement new solutions rapidly. It requires adaptability to deal with new technologies, new business models and new competitors. It requires an understanding of innovation and how to learn while doing. America has these leaders. We just need to give them the positions and chance to succeed!

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Adam HartungAdam Hartung, author of “Create Marketplace Disruption“, is a Faculty and Board member of the Lake Forest Graduate School of Management, Managing Partner of Spark Partners, and writes for “Forbes” and the “Journal for Innovation Science.”

No comments

  1. I agree that many business environments need to change. But there are alot of great innovative companies in the US (37 Signals, Pixar, Twitter to name a few).

    What I find interesting is the notion that more government involvement (the free internet comment and others) will help business. Maybe I misunderstood the intent, but I believe the less interference with business the more creativity you will see. Take the internet businesses. There is an explosion of creative, innovative companies that are website driven in the US. IMO, this is because of little to no regulation, and easy entrance to the market.

    That is where US government can help. Get out of the way of business where possible. If we abhor command and control in our businesses, how about the same in Government?

  2. Adam, I agree w/you on the major points but Apple was right to let Jobs go when it did–and right to bring him back. What changed in the intervening years is that Jobs grew up. He brought back the best of what he was w/o the worst that used to be part of his baggage.

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