SBJ/October 24-30, 2011/Opinion

Lessons learned from Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs, a world-class innovator and one of the most ingenious CEOs of our time, had an impact on more than the business world. His digital devices have changed the way we live.

Jobs invented or transformed entire industries, including personal computers, mobile telephony, film animation and music retailing. It’s telling that hundreds of millions of people around the world learned of his passing on a device he invented and sold to them.

Jobs once observed his and Apple’s DNA were intertwined. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit a profound connection to that sentiment. I felt the same way about the company I founded 20 years ago, and feel the same way about IMG College today.

No human being is perfect. Jobs and I would probably differ in quite a few areas, personally and professionally. However, whether or not you’re a fan of him or Apple products, Steve Jobs the leader leaves us valuable lessons. Let me share a few that apply to our business:

Relentlessly pursue excellence: Jobs’ single-minded drive was legendary, as he spent every waking moment in a quest to create beautiful products that work beautifully. Apple never cut corners, no matter the cost. (MoMA — the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art — has 25 Apple products in its personal design collection!) As Jobs once said, “The only way to be satisfied is to do what you believe is great work.” We, too, can focus our inner drive, and ask, Is there sufficient rigor in our standards? Do we settle for mediocrity? What are we passionate about professionally? How can we channel our enthusiasm and passion more effectively?

Customer retention is the end game in all sales relationships: Apple customers are famously loyal. How many have bought an iPod, then switched to another MP3 player? We should prize the quality of each customer interaction, raising our own expectations of what we’ll provide, then delivering the goods. Let’s give customers no reason to do business with anyone else!

Never underestimate the power of personal experience: Jobs had incredible empathy for how customers experienced Apple — from masterfully orchestrated product unveilings to the moment customers entered the store to buy the newest device, to when they flipped on the iPad or downloaded that first song from iTunes. While not every presentation can be grand theater, take nothing for granted in each customer interaction. Treat them artfully. Aspire to over-deliver, sparking some magic in doing so.

Facts always win: Jobs’ product presentations featured impressive showmanship, but beneath the sizzle was a juicy fact-filled steak. As an editor of Wired once said, “Steve wasn’t waving his arms and mystifying you with something that wasn’t true. He was mystifying you with reality!” Keep facts in the forefront.

Success doesn’t always come instantly: Apple began a torrid run of product breakthroughs after unveiling the iPod a decade ago. It’s easy to forget that a few years earlier, Apple nearly folded, and Jobs was exiled from the company he co-founded. Instead of quitting, Jobs continued to follow his inner voice. When invited back to run Apple, he forged a comeback for the ages. The company that nearly failed has a current market capitalization of $350 billion — bigger than Microsoft and Intel combined.

In the race to excellence, there’s no finish line: Every Apple product improves markedly from one generation to the next. New features are added while, paradoxically, the gizmos become smaller and simpler. Sure, Apple had its share of failures, but the enduring memory will be Jobs on stage, sliding another miracle from his pocket. Remember, no one’s work is ever fully complete. We can always improve, creating version 2.0 and beyond.

Think big … and small: While others viewed computers as giant machines strictly for corporations, Jobs saw a personal electronic appliance for every American. Even while dreaming big to create entire categories, Jobs was also concerned with the smallest details — tinkering with the buttons on the iMac keyboard and the wires inside. (He’s a patent holder on the architectural glass used in Apple store stairways.) In our professional lives, both grand ideas and the smallest details matter. We should think big … and take pride in the small stuff.

Steve Jobs may have been secular in many of his viewpoints, but even he’d have probably admitted, God is in the details!

Ben Sutton is president of IMG College and founder of ISP Sports.

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