Steve Jobs and People Management: What Not to Do

Few executives have spawned as much adoration as Apple’s Steve Jobs. The hippie turned entrepreneur turned tech guru invented products that changed the way Americans worked and enjoyed their leisure time. The iPhone ushered in the smartphone era, and the iPad demonstrated the potential of the tablet. “A lot of times,” Jobs famously said, “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

Despite his godlike status, Steve Jobs could be as terrifying as he was ingenious. He possessed an explosive temper and was known for firing employees for the slightest infractions. When looking for lessons from Steve Jobs’s life, you’ll not only find “what to do” as an innovator and entrepreneur. He also offered plenty of “what not to do” lessons, especially when managing people.

Steve Jobs Pic

Don’t Fire Employees in the Elevator

According to Apple lore, Steve Jobs once entered the elevator on the ground floor of Apple’s headquarters. The young man in the elevator greeted him and stated that it was a beautiful day. Jobs barked back, “So what did you do for Apple today?”

The man replied, “I bought my daughter an iPod.”

Steve Jobs looked back at him and shouted, “Is that it? Is that the best you can come up with?”

“I think so.”

“Then you’re fired!”

As it turns out, the man in the elevator wasn’t actually an Apple employee. He was someone who had come into the building to fix one of Apple’s copiers. However, the story illustrates a very real truth: Many Apple employees were afraid to get into the elevator with their boss.

Michael Dhuey, who worked with Jobs on the Macintosh II and the first iPod, told Venture Beat that employees would prepare questions in advance just in case they had to ride with Jobs in the elevator. “A good question for Steve would keep the pressure off you,” Dhuey said. Otherwise, Steve would remember if an employee had a good story to tell in the elevator. He would also remember if they didn’t.

jobs young

Don’t Be a Jerk During Interviews

Imagine yourself as an industrial-organizational psychology student watching Steve Jobs interview job candidates. Once, while interviewing candidates for an open vice president of human resources position, Jobs famously said, “I’ve never met one of you who didn’t suck. I’ve never known an HR person who had anything but a mediocre mentality.”

A smart candidate might have responded, “Let me tell you why I don’t suck.” However, few CEOs, especially since most of them lack the legendary status of Jobs, can get away with being rude to good job candidates. Although interviewing for positions is a weeding-out process, a good interview experience builds strong networks and positive word-of-mouth. Unless you expect to pass into myth after you die like Steve Jobs has, avoid insulting the people that you’re trying to recruit.

Don’t Snuff Out Competition

When Google started to thrive in Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs famously told the fledgling company that if they tried to hire away any of his people, he would interpret it as an act of war. Once, when Jobs heard of a Google recruiter calling one of Apple’s employees during the workday, he personally made sure that the recruiter was fired without notice. Keeping competition down allowed Silicon Valley startups to keep salaries down, which is why Apple and Google agreed not to recruit from one another’s workforces.

Unfortunately, the conspiracy to cap salaries might end up costing both tech companies billions of dollars. A group of Silicon Valley workers recently filed a class action lawsuit against Apple, Google, Pixar and Intuit for conspiring to keep salaries down by squashing competition. Workers could end up earning $9 billion in compensation which Jobs and his cohorts should have been paying them in the first place.

Jobs Portrait

It’s important to remember that mere mortals wouldn’t get away with the kind of behavior that Steve Jobs exhibited at work. Maybe what he interpreted as a “mediocre mentality” was just a longsuffering HR executive’s way of keeping him out of court. At Apple’s helm, Steve Jobs was brilliant, visionary and demanding. Some people enjoyed working with him. Plenty of others didn’t.

Steve Jobs image by Marthin Suhl from Flickr Creative Commons.

Steve Jobs on brick painting image by thierry ehrmann from Flickr Creative Commons.

Steve Jobs colorful painting image by Todd Benson from Flickr Creative Commons.


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