Lessons from Apple under Steve Jobs


By Mark P. Barry, Lecturer in Management, UTS

Mark Barry Photo 2When Steve Jobs took over in 1997, Apple — the company he co-founded in 1976 but from which he was fired nine years later — was just 90 days from bankruptcy. When he stepped down as CEO in August 2011, weeks before his death, Apple had just become the most valuable company (by market valuation) in the world. It remains so today. Apple, Inc., makes perhaps the most popular consumer products in the world, with instantly recognizable names such as the Mac, the iPhone and the iPad. Most observers agree that Apple changed the world. It did so through a passion to make the best products possible (but with just a few, focused product lines), a unique management style, and the goal of marrying technology and the liberal arts. From Apple’s example of success, there are lessons for Unificationists.

Steve Jobs was a very difficult person to work under. He was prone to calling people either geniuses or bozos; he could be wickedly cruel to those who received his ire. He often invoked his “reality distortion field” to convince others to believe the opposite of what was otherwise obvious. But he had a passion for excellence and would settle for nothing less. That’s why in the end people wanted to work under him. They knew he would make breakthroughs that no one else of his generation could.

Since his passing, many call him a combination of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. And Apple’s greatest achievements occurred with Job’s “second coming,” the years after he returned to the company’s helm, in which Apple was the most productive and innovative. Jobs was not only a great visionary, but he had tremendous willpower to accomplish what he wanted no matter what the odds.

Jobs had been ill with pancreatic cancer since 2003. Though the tumor was removed, cancer recurred by 2008, necessitating a liver transplant the next year. He knew he could not lead Apple forever, that his time was very limited. In fact in his last years, Jobs led Apple under considerable pain and physical weakness. He sought to institutionalize Apple’s culture so that it would carry on with great energy and continuing success after his passing. He established an internal Apple University to teach employees the fundamentals of Apple’s corporate DNA and creative culture. The last thing Jobs wanted after his passing was for managers to ask, “What would Steve do?” He felt that tendency was what hurt the Walt Disney Company after the death of its founder.

Whether Apple’s culture under Steve Jobs has been successfully passed on to his successor and present employees remains to be seen. One thing is clear: the world has changed now that Apple is no longer the upstart. Its competition, such as Google and Samsung, is gaining ground in making attractive and highly-regarded products. But clearly Apple’s future success hinges on being true to its DNA as well as adapting to the changing marketplace and consumer preferences.

As Fortune magazine senior editor, Adam Lashinsky, wrote, in his last years, “Jobs was intent on institutionalizing his ways of doing business. His mission: to turn the traits that people most closely associate with Jobs — the attention to detail, the secrecy, the constant feedback — into processes that can ensure Apple’s excellence far into the future.” Lashinsky dubbed Apple the “world’s greatest startup:” it behaves more like a cutting-edge Silicon Valley startup than the consumer electronics giant it is. The corporate mentality is that of being the little guy, which promotes a level of innovation that otherwise would be impossible

There is a tale Steve Jobs would always recite, according to Lashinsky. It’s called “The Difference Between the Janitor and the Vice President.” He told it every time a manager was promoted to vice president in the company (Apple has about 70 vice presidents). Jobs would say that he once asked his janitor why his trash wasn’t regularly being emptied from his office, and he got an excuse: the janitor said the locks were changed and he doesn’t have the new key. Jobs would say this is an acceptable excuse coming from someone who empties trash bins for a living. The janitor gets to explain why something went wrong. But senior managers cannot. When you’re the janitor, Jobs would tell new VPs, reasons matter. Somewhere between the janitor and the CEO reasons stop mattering. That Rubicon is crossed when you become a vice president.

Apple instills a strong culture of responsibility through a series of weekly meetings that sets the tone for the entire company. Every Monday, they review their whole business, and from week to week the agenda is 80% the same. Simplicity breeds clarity, and from the top down everybody can stay on the same page. Moreover, the mindset of accountability extends from top to bottom among employees. There is no confusion as to who is responsible for what. In Apple’s jargon, there is the term DRI, or “Directly Responsible Individual.” Oftentimes, the DRI’s name appears on an agenda for meetings so everybody knows who is responsible.

The culture of responsibility at Apple is applied even at the senior-most level. Last fall, when Apple introduced its own Maps app for the iPhone and iPad, it uncharacteristically had many errors compared to competitors’ map apps. The senior vice president for iPhone software, who some thought might be an eventual successor to Jobs, refused to sign his name to a public apology issued by Apple’s senior leadership, claiming the app’s problems were exaggerated. That executive was immediately removed from his post, eased out of Apple by year’s end, and the company restructured its senior management in a way that led to even greater collaboration and innovation (e.g., the forthcoming iOS 7 software).

iOS7 scaled

Apple’s newest iPhone and iPad software, iOS 7, was unveiled on June 10 at a San Francisco conference. With an interface conceived by Apple design chief, Sir Jony Ive, it received a standing ovation from the audience. Here is a better view of the new look.

Steve Jobs always thought of Apple as more than another consumer electronics company. Although when young he admired Sony, he aspired for greater heights. He wanted to integrate the cutting-edge of technology with the humanities, and enrich people’s lives. In his last two years as CEO, at the close of new product announcements, on stage Jobs would show a slide of a street sign depicting the intersection of technology and the liberal arts. To his biographer, Walter Isaacson, Jobs observed:

The reason Apple resonates with people is that there is a deep current of humanity in our innovation. I think great artists and great engineers are similar, and that they both have a desire to express themselves.

Apple has not been perceived as an ordinary consumer electronics company. Buying one of its products made you feel you were part of something special, even magical. People could perceive the heart and effort, the quality, put into the product. For a long time, nothing could compare to Apple’s products.

What lessons can Unificationists draw from the experience of Apple under Steve Jobs? Here are  a few:

  1. True meaning of succession. The last thing Steve Jobs wanted after his passing was for employees to ask what would he do. There is an Apple way to do things. Based on over five decades of marriage to her late husband, and her deep understanding of his teachings and standard – the basic DNA of our movement — True Mother is charting her own course. Perhaps, so should we.
  2. Comebacks. Jobs was fired nine years after founding Apple but eventually came back far stronger and wiser – and fully vindicated. True Father was written off numerous times during his public ministry but each time came back. Some have written off the Unification movement but it can come back, and stronger than ever.
  3. Start-up spirit. Apple preserves its consciousness of being the little guy, a cutting-edge start-up. True Mother also is calling the movement to its original consciousness, its early spirit of passionate evangelism as the guiding principle.
  4. “Directly Responsible Person.” Clear designation of “no excuses” responsibility at the executive level is an important aspect of institutionalization. Many may feel that leadership within the Unification movement has at times been inefficient, with frequently changing priorities and emphases. Apple today maintains a clear-headed goal of making the best products, period. It is not leader-centered but principle-centered.
  5. Technology and the humanities. For the Unification movement to spread its influence globally, especially to a younger generation, it needs to develop a richer, more mature culture, able to articulate realistic solutions to world problems.

With the sudden passing of our Founder, the challenge to Unificationists is to offer the world something much more than usually can be found. Our product needs to be cutting-edge, appeal to the widest spectrum of people, be infused with passion and creativity, and avoid rehashing what already exists (especially when many regard the old as inadequate for the times). It’s easy to imitate but much harder to competently convey something profoundly original and compelling.

If we seize the right vision and spirit of leadership and management, and use the right tools, perhaps we can reach, in a comparable way, the global heights Apple finally could at the end of Steve Jobs’ career – and even further.♦

Dr. Mark P. Barry teaches management, intercultural communication, and modern Korean history at UTS. He is managing editor of the Applied Unificationism blog, and uses an Apple MacBook Pro, but his smartphone is a Google Nexus 4. He thanks Dr. Michael Mickler for important suggestions to this article.

UPDATE: Apple’s new TV and print campaign seems to say it all about the company philosophy. And a new Apple video speaks to its drive for perfection:

5 thoughts on “Lessons from Apple under Steve Jobs

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  1. Good article, Mark. I like your approach in drawing lessons from successful people and enterprises, and picking one of the most successful, Steve Jobs. Too often our childish culture of selfishness just tries to penalize success and bailout failure.

    One additional thing about Jobs is that he was not stuck with the concept of evolutionary development, which means to simply add a couple of bells and whistles to the last model, but he thought about revolutionary changes – like dragging touch screens [gestures] – that hadn’t yet been designed, but he knew would make a great difference in the way users did things.

    I took a course in creativity when I studied engineering in college, and one thing that stuck with me is what today we tritely call “think out of the box”: Don’t use old terms that give you old stereotypes. For example, instead of saying a “submarine,” redefine your mission according to function and think “underwater pickup truck.” Immediately new images and concepts pop in your mind.

    Jobs could think creatively like this, and I think it would be good for us to think outside our cultural box, in terms of creating a culture that supports different goals and purposes in line with the Three Blessings. In politics, for example, why should we think our method of elections, or the existence of political parties be desirable? For example, TF spoke about alternative methods of election that would eliminate the influence of money from the process.

    Therefore, although it is trite, I’d like to add, “Really think outside the box” to your list.

  2. It’s certainly a good idea to learn from successful people. Even the worst have to get something right in order to be effective. How much more can we learn from those who benefitted society in some way.

    I think Jobs’ and Apple’s strong points are also the very things that hinder them and the reason why Samsung is now outselling them.

    The strong point of Apple is it understands that what is simple to an engineer may be complex to the consumer. Yet, as smart as their engineers are, they are not able to understand how to communicate things in a way that non-engineers can easily grasp. So there exists a discipline that is a bridge between the engineers and the users. These people are a special kind of designer who understand both groups and act as kind of translator; especially with interface design. Microsoft and other companies are now learning this as, usually, a Microsoft program would require quite advanced knowledge to configure, etc.

    The problem with Apple is that they have lost sight of the fact that it’s about being effective and not being efficient. Apple figures out what they think is the very best way to do something, then they impose that on the users. For example, when I used an iPhone and iPad I would have liked to arrange photos in folders in the order I decide but iOS “only” allows them to be ordered according to the date stamp on the metadata. It doesn’t give an option. This is a simple example but it is one of how Apple decides for me what is the best way and then demands that I do it this way. I moved to Android because Google is more sensitive to what options people might want; even if it’s not always the optimal way. Google understands that letting people do things their own way is always the optimal way.

    I think these three lines sum up the different philosophies:

    Microsoft sees a need in the market and thinks, “How can we make as much money as possible from catering to this need?”

    Apple sees a need in the market and thinks, “What is the very best way this need can be catered for?”

    Google sees a need in the market and thinks, “What do people want?”

    British Christian missionaries spent centuries evangelizing Africa and got nowhere. They demanded that the Africans dress the “Christian way,” for example, when what they meant was the “British way.” It was only after native African Christians were given training and installed as bishops among their own people that African Christianity went from 5% to 50% in a very short period of time.

    I’d say that the biggest thing to learn from both the strengths “and” weaknesses of the Steve Jobs Apple era as far as implementing Unificationism is that we should understand those we seek to influence rather than just understand the change we want to see. Also, we shouldn’t lose sight of being effective in our striving to be efficient.

  3. Associations about Apple before… Overpriced laptops!

    Never understood why anyone would buy them… unless they had no sense of the value of hard-earned money.

    And these days… iPhones!

    What happened? Well, Mr. Jobs created a touchscreen phone instead of the old keypad style and made economic success with it. Congratulations! I guess… Was this really that great?

    Still in my family, we own no Apple products… except for an iPad recently bought for my disabled daughter who likes flashy effects on the screen made simply by her finger… and it also has a very sturdy structure too… thanks to a heavy-duty protective case purchased just for her “needs”… she can smash that iPad right against the wall, as she sometimes does, and later keeps playing like nothing happened. Great toy… unbreakable almost… like Legos.

    For me iPads (and its variations) are only one more toy out there… can’t use them for serious work. I tried…

    And I really hate to type on them… practically can’t use them to write anything serious except for some broken Twitter messages.

    But I must admit… it has some catchy games too. Very good to break office boredom…

    But please, don’t tell this to my employer… He actually thinks iPads/iPhones increase our work efficiency… just because we increased our time doing “work” and generally requesting less breaks compared to before they were purchased.

    So, thank you Mr. Jobs… for the things I can do now while I’m on my “job.”

  4. As an afterword, here are a few more lessons from Apple:

    1. Focus on just a few things, keep a tight focus, and make the best products in what you specialize.

    2. Many employee assignments were usually not permanent at Apple, but consisted of small project teams that would work together until the project was completed. Individuals then would be assigned to new projects with different team members. This reduced the chances for employees to be caught up in “position.”

    3. Steve Jobs set the gold standard for presentations (i.e., what we call PowerPoints, only he used Apple’s Keynote software). Slides were kept simple, more detail came from the speaker, but never too much. The result was always effective and compelling.

    It should also be noted that, according to news reports, Jobs refused to let Apple cave in to the federal government’s national security surveillance program. Only a year after his death, did Apple allegedly begin to cooperate. This contrasts with reports of Microsoft’s ongoing close collaboration with the NSA, suggesting, as one writer put it, that: “Microsoft considers its customer’s personal privacy to be subservient to the needs of government surveillance.”

    1. Well, now after PRISM has been revealed, all those companies who “value the privacy” of their customers (unless you really read the fine print), are doing damage control on all possible levels. And probably the writer quoted by Mr. Barry is someone doing exactly that. But in essence, both of those companies, Apple and Microsoft, are basically the same… I mean, morally the same… Or better to say, with no morals at all!
      Same “difference” would be between Google and Yahoo… or Facebook and MySpace… or Verizon and AT&T. Any important difference in respecting customers privacy? I don’t think so…

      So now, after TF’s “noon time” shadow came over those companies in the form of Mr. Snowden, we can know what was the other part of their deal with the government… It came at the end of each fiscal year by the government’s closing its eyes on unreported corporate/individual income… We also know how much money they were getting during the year from the government/taxpayers by overcharging the NSA/FBI for providing people’s private data and how all of that was a good business decision at the end (lesson number one for us, maybe?)… Or how some would say: It was nothing personal, people… “It was just business”… (lesson number two?)

      We are also more able to understand how they can get away with that practice even when they are called to appear at congressional hearings and in the end nobody asks them a real question about it or calls for a criminal investigation. And how come the government, with all that surveillance, can never seem to track down billions of dollars siphoned into offshore accounts of its richest individuals and S/P list of companies?

      It also always amazes me what people are ready to do, or give up, for just a little bit more money in their pockets… So, Mr. Jobs, Mr. Zuckerberg and others, was it really worth it?

      As time passes, and history is written about these “entrepreneurs,” I believe someone like Aaron Swartz, for many totally unknown, will be placed much higher than Jobs or Zuckerberg, on some positive influence/value scale… Because the true value will be decided by how much the person lived for the sake of others vs. themselves/profit only…

      But let’s say in the end Mr. Jobs didn’t allow the government to have access to Apple’s customer’s private data, the fact remains it created offshore accounts to hide the company’s income, and hires a “slave” working class in third world countries to assemble its phones for let’s say $1/day, and later sells them here for ridiculously high prices…(another lesson, maybe?). But, as you also know, in today’s world that is not illegal… It is called the free market. And it works really well, actually… at least for some.

      I am sure our members/church can learn a few more things from Mr. Jobs, too…
      Maybe his successors can tell us how families can hide their income at the end of the year, or pay zero taxes year after year without going to prison.

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