There have been many great books, articles, and blogs praising the leadership of Steve Jobs and the results are hard to argue with.

Steve JobsSteve was one of the most powerful visionary leaders of our day. Both highly intellectual and possessing the mind of an engineer, combined with the vision of an artist, he transformed an entire market. So shouldn’t we all strive to be like Steve? The problem is there are only a handful of people who can visualize a future, play with it in their mind, and then go create it. A leader that smart can break all of the leadership rules. And sadly, most of us just aren’t that smart.

There is much to be learned from taking a contrary view of Steve Jobs and studying his actions as the leader of a company in an industry still undergoing epic transformation. Just as the entire marketing industry is going through now…

It’s Steve Jobs’ world and we’re just living in it!

From about the late 1700s to the mid-1800s, no one at that time understood that the extent of change that would later be deemed the Industrial Revolution. New ways of managing and organizing business completely transformed the world. Production of goods that for centuries were in small family-run business gave way to large centralized factories, and the concept of mass production not only opened the door to new opportunities and unprecedented growth, but also reshaped the way we live, work, and play.

The digital revolution is just as transformative, and again no one saw just how much this change would influence our lives. Steve Jobs was lucky enough, good enough, and smart enough to thrive in and be part of that change. And along the way, Steve created a series of great “gotta-have” products. In effect, Steve created new ideas and products from nothing.

So as we are still living within this digital revolution, we have to re-evaluate where we are now and try to figure out where we are headed. There have been many books, articles, blog post, and discussions on the changes sweeping our industry. Many so-called experts are pushing various models, structures, skills, and ideas that advertising agencies should adopt. Some seem like good ideas; others seem very much like pie-in-the-sky thinking. What is true is that change is sweeping through the marketing industry. A new foundation is being created, but it’s still too early to tell just what this new foundation is or how it will end up looking. To quote the oft used adage “the only constant from now on will be change!”

Many leaders, when faced with this epic change, look for inspiration, a guidepost, something that will offer a clue about how to lead in times of upheaval. Truly transformational leaders who change the world for the better remain rare in business. Which is why Steve Jobs is so fascinating.

Don’t Be Like Steve: 8 Unforgivable Mistakes Ad Agency Leaders Should Avoid:

  1. Steve and IBMDon’t be a jerk. Steve Jobs was a known bully and would often fly off the handle at those under him. He would publicly question the intelligence of anyone he found fault with. Steve would snap and bark at those under him, park in handicap spaces, flaunt the rules and more… You don’t have to be arrogant to impress people with your abilities. Leave the arrogance at home because it’s not going to work for you. A real leader works to develop and maintain basic management and leadership skills– and isn’t a jerk.
  2. Living with bad decisions. A young Steve Jobs brought in John Sculley to run Apple. Unfortunately he got someone that didn’t understand Apple’s culture or brand. Eventually Sculley consolidated enough power and moved to have Jobs replaced. As a result the Apple brand suffered. A decade later Jobs said, “What can I say? I hired the wrong guy. He destroyed everything I spent 10 years working for, starting with me.” You can’t survive with poor employee decisions and/or actions. Trust your gut and move quickly to address your bad decision. As one agency leader told me when I asked for the reason for his success, “slow to hire, quick to fire!”
  3. Not communicating expectations or goals. When a visionary leader sets a goal, they expect everyone to move in that direction. With Steve Jobs he often didn’t understand why people didn’t “get it” because it seemed so obvious to him. Rather than clarifying goals, Steve would publicly humiliate them or just fire them outright. As a result, the creator of the outstanding retail stores, Rob Johnson, left. Alison Johnson, Apple’s vice president of global marketing and communications, left. Spend time with your staff and make sure they understand your goals and expectations.
  4. Fail to train and invest in staff. Steve Jobs never had any formal training: not in management, not in engineering, not in design. Almost everyone he worked with was amazed at his capacity to make decisions solely based on his instinct. This is great for a gifted visionary. Not so good for the rest of us. Invest in and develop your next tier of leaders.
  5. Failure to advocate, support, and nurture initiative. There are many accounts of Steve jobs firing staff on the spot for taking initiative. His staff had to be very careful of what they could do; everyone understood some actions were not forgivable. If you’re the CEO of one of the largest, fastest growing brands and an icon of top talent around the world, then by all means punish anyone you like. Use fear as a motivator. Good luck attracting and keeping top talent. Better to create an environment where initiative is rewarded and mistakes are viewed as opportunities to learn.
  6. Don’t build walls. Apple’s cult of secrecy, a brainchild of Steve, is well known. Programmers were not allowed to see the product; designers were broken into small groups to work on different elements; and people were publicly fired for letting any information out. Nobody could share ideas. It was rumored that fewer than 12 people saw the final iPhone prior to Steve demonstrating it at Macworld in 2007. Apple needs to keep secrets, no question, but for most successful agencies inclusion is the name of the game. Be sure to involve your staff in any activity where they could make a contribution.
  7. Failure to provide and receive feedback from staff. There were many stories about Steve Job’s bad behavior to his staff, how often he would make absurd or derogatory comments to them. But the most common criticism was that he interrupted and didn’t listen. As the incontrovertible public leader of Apple, Steve embodied the vision and was responsible for its success. He did so by relying on two things: understanding trends and using his own gut. There aren’t many people in the world that can build a world class organization on those two things. Stop, and listen to what your staff is telling you. Work to include them in your decision making process.
  8. Allow conflict and competition to get out of control. According to former NeXT business partner Pat Crecine, Steve Jobs was “absolutely single minded, almost manic, in his pursuit of quality and excellence.” As a result, he would create conflict… and into that high octane combustion he would pour more gasoline with his abrasive personality. The flip side is just as dangerous for agencies: trying to eliminate conflict altogether. Work to find that happy balance.

What did Steve Jobs Do Right?

Steve Jobs VisionThere are many, many books on what Steve did right. The proof is in the results we see today. I just want to highlight a few…

  1. Steve Jobs used the power of vision to drive Apple forward. Today, agency leaders struggle with managing change in the market. Agency staff perceives the ongoing conflict between their leader’s actions, the ever changing goals of the agency, and client demands. Often times the messages from the leadership about what the agency is doing to deal with change is confusing, conflicting or just lacking all together. There are many reasons for this, but most stem from a lack of understanding about what is changing or from a lack of the development of a long-term vision. After all, if we’re not sure what the future holds, then what sort of firm should we be creating? Without any clear articulation of future expectations and goals the staff is left wondering if there is any benefit to be gained from the changes occurring all around them. The key question on everyone’s lips is “what’s in it for me?” Here is where we can take a page right out of Steve Jobs leadership handbook. His vision for Apple was simple: “Our primary goal here is to make the world’s best PCs — not to be the biggest or the richest.” Every Apple employee was expected to share that vision. John Sculley wrote after taking over in 1985 about the vision “Apple was supposed to become a wonderful consumer products company… This was a lunatic plan. High tech could not be designed and sold as a consumer product.” Seems he was wrong and Steve’s vision won in the end.
  2. Steve Jobs was fully committed. It’s often been said that “change is exciting when done by us and threatening when done to us” and this is truer today than ever. Steve understood this and was willing to sacrifice everything in pursuit of his vision. Look back at all the Apple initiatives canceled at the very last moment for not reaching his standards. Whole programs developed at great cost he cut. We know now that he canceled an Apple PDA and a set of web services at the very last minute costing him millions. As agency leaders it’s your role to own the brand. After all, ownership leads to commitment. Your actions can make any change less threatening. Remember, you always must demonstrate your commitment to change with actions. And if you’re a leader, then you need to be the first to change — jump off the cliff!
  3. Steve Jobs surrounded himself with top talent. He worked hard to recruit people usually regarded as the best in their fields. And the very best wanted to work for Apple so finding them became easy. For an agency you have work hard to find new talent and/or develop what you have in-house. The world of marketing will continue to change, affecting all levels of not just the industry, but the agency and everyone who works there. This is a people business, and our staff is our most important asset. As a leader of the agency you must be aware of the changes and its impact on people. Each individual in the agency must change their behaviors to better handle the agency changes. And agency leadership must support the changes with open communication and ongoing education programs. Find or develop the very best talent you can.

Final Thoughts

There is no doubt that Steve Jobs was a force of nature– unique in our time. Recognized as one of the true visionaries in history, there is much we can learn from his actions. Some good, some bad. The key is to be comfortable in your talents and don’t try to “be” Steve Jobs.

Research shows the best leaders are good communicators. They have learned to give clear instructions, stay responsive to questions and suggestions, and keep the appropriate parties well informed. Research also confirms a positive correlation between communication (understanding) and:

  • Improved productivity
  • Better problem solving
  • A reduction in grievances
  • Ideas for improvement in methodology
  • Improved working relationships
  • Greater personal satisfaction

Agency leaders must set the example of how to survive and succeed in this new age of change. Be it external in the services you develop and offer, or internal with changes to your organization, work or decision making processes.

Sanders Consulting Group works with marketing firms of varying sizes in one-day planning sessions, four week assessments, weekly monitoring, and long term on-site implementation programs. We have worked with over 5,000 advertising agencies, public relations firms, design, and sales promotion companies all over the world for over 30 years.