Perspectives on Steve Jobs as Employee, Manager & Leader (post 1 of 5)

This post is the first of a series of postings in which I have written about Mr. Steve Jobs, in my search for more information regarding the entrepreneur and the organization. It was helpful to study such a character; through his biography, the hollywood film (although not likely the best representation), and some further research I was able to make some personal assumptions and raise useful questions towards preparing my capstone. Enjoy!

The entrepreneur, the rebels and the rule breakers; they innovate while denying expectations. The organization can be looked at through many different perspectives, but generally the organization seeks to grow and sustain for and through its people and product. What happens when the organization employs or is led by one of the rule breakers? How is the community impacted and the product enhanced? Steve Jobs is a noteworthy rebel who revolutionized an industry through his leadership antics. What can we learn from his story?

Steve Jobs knew he was going to die young. This conviction propelled an insatiable urgency within Jobs to change the world. And he did. Jobs has been branded the “Father of the Digital Revolution”, the “master evangelist of the digital age” and is referred to as a legend, futurist and visionary. This recognition is certainly warranted through not just the product experiences he engendered, but through his example in thought leadership. Apple is a technology company led by design, not engineering. Steve’s persistence in convincing engineers to make what was conceivably impossible, possible, in order to enrich the experience of the user has undoubtedly revolutionized the approach of technology companies around the world. Why is it then that many who worked alongside of Jobs say that they would never do it again? To note, Jobs was also considered “one of Silicon Valley’s leading egomaniacs.”

In this blog series, I utilize storylines or scenes from the Hollywood film “Jobs” in order to analyze the dynamics generated by Steve Jobs as colleague, manager and leader. I reference additional evidence around Jobs’ story in order to evaluate how the visionary and entrepreneur grew to adapt to the organization and ultimately achieve his success. I will apply a cultural, religious and developmental lens to understand how these dynamics impacted Jobs and the organization. I will also share personal theories into how acceptance could have been better met on both the side of Jobs and the organizations he worked within.

SCENE 1 – Steve As Employee – ATARI

Atari was revolutionary in the gaming world; successfully implementing the game “Pong”, a design Steve Jobs took credit for after stealing the code from his buddy Steve Wozniak and bringing to Atari as his own. In this scene, Jobs is an Atari employee and he is reviewing a new game developed by a fellow Atari engineer. The engineer sits as Jobs leans over him to view his work on the screen. With complete disregard for the other employees in the office, including his own manager, Jobs begins to shout, “NO NO! It’s still black and white! People want color.” The engineer replies matter-of-factly, “Pong didn’t have color.” With no hesitation, Jobs reacts, “So? Let’s do something better.” After the engineer claims that using color is impossible, Jobs questions the viability of this retort. Jobs continues to press as the engineer uneasily walks away from him, “Ok, you refuse to do anything that vaguely escapes your comfort zone.” The sullen engineer utters back, “You’re not even my boss!” Steve replies, “Well I damn sure should be!”

The room is frozen. Employees stare from behind their workstations in disbelief, fear and embarrassment. Jobs creates a hostile and uncomfortable environment. His manager arrives and tells Jobs that he has to change as he is receiving complaints. “Steve, you gotta learn how to work well with other people,” he says. Frustrated, Jobs positions himself toward the machine and explicates, “I’m just trying to do it right!” The manager recognizes this, and he makes it clear that he appreciates Jobs’ contributions, but he presses again that something has to change. In that moment Jobs takes the opportunity to request his own project, and promises an extraordinary outcome. His confidence and persistence convinces the manager, and he permits. Also offering a large financial reward if Jobs succeeds. The working conditions change however for Steve Jobs, he is now assigned to work in isolation through the night in order to no longer aggravate the Atari staff.

Looking through the cultural lens at what we witness at Atari, it’s clear that roles are not clearly defined, at least not for Steve Jobs. Indecent behavior was excused as long as you were adding value through invention. As an employee, Jobs stepped out of line by yelling at his colleague, and making the rest of the office uncomfortable. Instead of Jobs being fired or punished, he is rewarded with his own project. In respect to the team however, he is now assigned to work alone in the office at night, arguably another reward. The peace sign hung on the wall of the office could be a symbol of Atari’s implied cultural values, with the thought that harmony and teamwork are encouraged. The culture is fragmented by Jobs however, as he represents an internal competitor with a bullish attitude. In his book Images of the Organization, Gareth Morgan notes,

“Not everyone is fully committed to the organization in which he or she works. People may develop specific subcultural practices as a way of adding meaning to their lives or by developing norms and values that advance personal rather than organizational ends”.

Steve Jobs was committed to making change, not for the Atari brand or organization, but in the world. He saw the resources at Atari as a means to that end, with disregard for the community or culture.

The people operating within the organization ultimately shape the organizational culture. It is a “living phenomenon”, which is impacted every day by the joint practices of its members. With Jobs as contributor, with no loyalty to anyone else but the product, he only relates to and shows respect for the manager who has a personal commitment in advancing the company. Jobs knows how to manipulate his manager to gain what he needs in order to feel accomplished, and move himself forward.

Jobs is successful in his self-owned project, and his loyalty to Atari ends there. He moves on after this to begin Apple Computers. Perhaps Atari, as an organization, is fine with the way this turned out. Jobs contribution was more like that of a vendor than of an employee. He was disruptive in his time to the organizational cultural, and my assumption is that a lot of resentment lingered after Jobs left the company with a large pay out. How could Atari have benefited from Jobs’ diligence while retaining him to the organization? In my opinion, what Jobs needed that Atari did not provide was a leader he could admire and a future vision of having freedom within the organization. Jobs would be better suited as an employee in an organization built upon “innovation democracy”, where all individuals are owners of their work, and are reviewed for those contributions, such as at W.L. Gore & Associates. Studied in Gary Hamel’s book, The Future of Management, “Gore’s unique management system serves one overriding objective: continuous, rule-breaking, innovation. This is a mission Jobs may have been able to commit to.

View the scene referenced above for yourself, HERE.

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