Steve Jobs: A 21st century odd man out

What characterized Steve Jobs as a CEO was that he was actually interested in making things. In the same era, many CEOs seem to care little about the actual thing they are making and a lot about how much they can personally make.

Parents always tell their children that there's more to life than making money.

The children then grow up and disappear into corporate worlds where there seems very little more to life than trousering as much cash as you can, as long as you can.

While many have reflected about Steve Jobs's virtues (and peccadilloes) as a CEO, perhaps the simplest lesson he can offer is that he was truly interested in making things.

In the same period in which he was resuscitating a company that had fallen into the hands of, well, a professional CEO, many professional CEOs didn't care all that much about the things that their companies made--as long as those things made money.

As Jobs brought radical change with extraordinary things--the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad--many of his counterparts in the corporate world spent much of their time exploring the latest accounting wheeze and how pretty it would make their quarterly results appear.

Many modern CEOs believe they can manage anything. One minute they can be selling cars. The next they can be selling you home improvements. But the truth is, they're not necessarily interested in selling you anything half as much as they're interested in selling Wall Street on their company's touching efficiency.

James Martin/CNET

Some might see a painful commentary on our times that while Jobs was trying to delight people with his brand of magic, CEOs in the banking business were trying to delight themselves by selling bundles of garbage mortgages to those whom they hoped were unsuspecting. Or, at least, to those who were ready to pass those smelly bundles quickly onto some other friend desperate to make a buck.

In the same era, those who made actual things often seemed to believe that just the fact of making them would make people buy them. Some might wistfully wonder how companies such as, for example, General Motors thought that it could produce cars whose dullness defied both eyes and Merriam-Webster and expect to continue growing.

Jobs managed to create things in the last decade for which people were prepared, even excited, to pay substantial amounts of money. Some thought the price exorbitant. Few who actually paid the money agreed. They were too busy enjoying their little gadgets.

For Jobs, unlike for many CEOs, there was no rush to the lowest common denominator. Jobs' belief wasn't that if you build it, they will come. It was if you build it right, they will come. And they will pay.

The financial system, one of reassuring big-bottomed bankers every three months that they will be able to get a little more gout thanks to even greater profits, wasn't exactly in Jobs' favor. What if a product wasn't right? What if it could be better?

It was that very system that encouraged CEOs to become mere CEOs--people who knew how to cut costs, count heads, and play the game. Many played it very well. That's just one of the reasons that, as Robert Reich mournfully tweeted today, the ratio of corporate profits to wages is the highest since before the Great Depression.

It's just one of the reasons that the average CEO is said to make 343 times the salary of the average employee.

There are few companies where the employees are proud of the things they make. There are few companies where the CEOs are even terribly familiar with how those things are made. The employees are far more concerned about whether they'll have a job next week. The bosses are far more concerned with the charging and the margin. Because if they just deliver on those, they will have a job for at least another three months.

So the Apple CEO, in creating products that were the epitome of modernity, was something of an anachronism. He didn't define his era. He was largely the odd man out.

He believed in his products so much that he would torture the process until the thing was right. He believed in his company and his customers so much that he would bother to e-mail the latter late at night when many a CEO was tucking into a fine Armagnac with a very close friend.

The next generation of tech CEOs doesn't necessarily get how Jobs managed to inspire people to love his brand and products. They do care about their own products but often prefer to give them away for free--perhaps it's less of a challenge that way. Still, they clearly revere what Jobs stands for. Even Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg decided this week to like the Apple CEO.

These new tech CEOs, though they are in many ways now competing with Apple, surely hope that Jobs will still get the chance to helm the creation of more extraordinary things. Or at least one more thing.

 

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