Last night, CNBC aired a program called “Warren Buffett and Bill Gates: Keeping America Great”. Buffett and Gates are two of the wealthiest men in the world, and part of the program featured direct questions from the audience.
At one point during the show, an audience member asked Gates for his thoughts on Steve Jobs and what he’s been able to do since returning to the helm of Apple in the late 90’s.
Well, he’s done a fantastic job. Apple is in a bit of a different business where they make hardware and software together. But when Steve was coming back to Apple, which was actually through an acquisition of NeXT that he ran, Apple was in very tough shape. In fact, most likely it wasn’t going to survive.
And he brought in a team, he brought in inspiration about great products and design that’s made Apple back into being an incredible force in doing good things. And it’s great to have competitors like that. We write software for Apple, Microsoft does. They compete with Apple. But he, of all the leaders in the industry that I’ve worked with, he showed more inspiration and he saved the company.
I think Gates’ observation regarding Jobs’ inspiration is very telling. Jobs actually enjoys what he does and what he’s working on. Many CEO’s regard their job as just that, but Jobs is invested in the products Apple churns out. He really believes in the notion of “changing the world”, and he firmly feels that Apple’s products help to that end.
A lot of times in business, you see CEO’s and other corporate executives shuffling around from company to company. Apple’s former CEO John Sculley, for example, was the President of Pepsi before he became Apple’s CEO in the mid-80’s. Jobs, however, could never work as the CEO of Pepsi – not because he’s not capable, but because Jobs is only effective when he’s passionate about what he’s working on, and he’s unbelievably passionate about Apple and its products.
Let’s look at another CEO, Steve Ballmer of Microsoft. Do you think he’s focused more on building great products or boosting Microsoft’s revenue and profits? Do you think Microsoft developed the Zune because they wanted to change the way people listen to music? Do you think they developed the xBox as a means to improve the gaming experience? I don’t mean to pick on Microsoft, but it doesn’t take a genius to see that Ballmer, and many other CEO’s, view their products solely as a means to generate money, and nothing more. Now there’s nothing wrong with that, and indeed, a CEO is tasked with increasing revenue, among other things. And to be fair, focusing on money often does spurn development of useful and impressive products. But for a company to truly plow into a market, and completely change the dynamics of the game (as Apple did with the iPod and iPhone), there has to be a passion that exists outside of a concern for dollars and cents.
Now as for Apple, Steve Jobs has stated time and time again, when asked about Apple’s stock position and its financial health, that when you focus on doing things right, and when you focus on actually creating products that add substance and utility to people’s lives, that the financial part of the equation takes care of itself.
Don’t get me wrong, Apple has a long history of obscenely high margins and you’d be foolish to think that Jobs doesn’t care about profits and cash flow. But for Jobs, those are merely the side effects that result from products that fundamentally alter the way we use and interact with technology. It’s that laser like focus that results in the “inspiration” Gates observed in Jobs. That inspiration is rooted in a love for technology, and not the bottom line, and that makes all the difference in the world.
Now is Jobs the only CEO with a passion for the products his company produces? Certainly not, but given the unbelievable resurgance Apple has had since Jobs’ return, he stands out head and shoulders above the rest.