Steve Jobs, the unique artisan CEO

Analyst Opinion – This month I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and talking about Steve Jobs and his return.  What I keep coming back to is why there is only one CEO that is like him?  Granted each CEO is somewhat unique, but Steve stands out from the rest rather noticeably. There have been a number of books profiling Steve the two most recent, iCon Steve Jobs (which Apple tried to block), and Inside Steve’s Brain combined tell a story of someone that could have never made it to the top ranks of any mature company. But  now that he is up there it is hard to find anyone else that is more successful for their company, customers, and their investors than Steve has been.

This makes me wonder about the process of becoming a CEO and whether it drives out the very skills needed to become a CEO like Jobs, one that has retains a passion for their products.  This is sad, given the general belief is that while Steve is back at Apple, he is only part time, and he won’t be there much longer.   What makes him truly different is his unwillingness to compromise the passion for building, and showcasing, a great product. I think we could use more of that in CEOs, be they in tech or any other industry.  

Building a CEO

Some of us studied to be CEOs but that is the exception rather than the rule and there is little I’ve found that speaks to having passion with products.  Sure, you get to understand finance, business processes, advertising, manufacturing, and sales, but they don’t teach how to build beautiful things. If you think about how many successful companies are formed, they start with a few people with a passion for something and, over time, the passionate ones leave to be replaced by professional managers.    

What starts out as a family of people trying to make customers happy erodes into a company of employees fighting to make sure they are individually recognized for what they do and the most successful climber of that latter bunch eventually becomes CEO.  The favored skill set is how to wine and dine large customers, take care of the board, and maximize personal compensation.  

I’m convinced many wouldn’t know how to use their products if they were given to them and fewer have ever tried competing offerings. They don’t care, the product is someone else’s priority and, if you look for that someone else, you’ll likely find someone more interested in their career than in the product. That’s the reality of most corporations in the world.  

Steve Jobs: More artisan than CEO

Steve’s advantage was that he was brought back at the top of Apple and never had to truly compete for the jobs between where he might have entered as an employee and where he would have ended up.   Reading the book iCon, it is clear that, if he hadn’t been an Apple founder, he would have been fired even sooner than he initially was.  

What Apple ended up with is a guy that had a deep passion for product in the CEO roll. He is more artist than manager and, like an artist, he has some rather ugly quirks (I’ve often thought you needed to have “active masochist” on your resume if you wanted to work for the guy) but the result is mass produced art.  He has an eye on the product and his vote is the final vote that counts.  

But artists, and perhaps a better term would be artisans, typically become over extended as they scale the business and, once they leave, the product suffers. Steve has successfully kept Apple simple enough so the artistic nature of his products comes through. And he has delegated the roles he doesn’t like to others so he can concentrate on building craftsman-like products he can be proud of. He does miss from time to time, but there is an inherent beauty to his offerings that few other products have.    

Wishing for more artisans

The problem with most products from cars to personal technology is that, by the time they make it from concept to mass produced product, they lose any initial artistic nature, if it existed in the first place, in a process that is more a design by committee exercise. Look at the Chevy Volt, for example. It started out as a work of art, it ended up as something far less interesting.  I worry that we are becoming a race of mass produced crap and that we are losing the magic, and, as a result, fewer and fewer great products seem to become available to us. This is particularly bad for the U.S., because when it comes to mass produced crap there are other countries vastly more capable than we are.     

I think what most CEOs lack is a passion for their products and that is the core reason why so many firms are doing so poorly. I think we’ll all miss Steve Jobs once he leaves Apple.

Rob Enderle is one of the last Inquiry Analysts. Inquiry Analysts are paid to stay up to date on current events and identify trends and either explain the trends or make suggestions, tactical and strategic, on how to best take advantage of them. Currently he provides his services to most of the major technology and media companies.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.