Coaching & Development Solutions

Why Steve Jobs Was Wrong About Salespeople

How Companies Decline

The rich and sprawling biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson contains a host of quotes which reveal Jobs' passions, beliefs and biases including this comment on the decline of companies:

The company does a great job, innovates and becomes a monopoly or close to it in some field, and then the quality of the product becomes less important. The company starts valuing the great salesmen, because they're the ones who can move the needle on revenues, not the product engineers and designers. So the salespeople end up running the company…When the sales guys run the company the product guys don't matter so much, and a lot of them just turn off …Walt Disney, Hewlett and Packard, and the people who created Intel… created a company to last, not just to make money. That's what I want Apple to be.

On one level Jobs is absolutely right. Whoever runs a company should deeply care about its products and services. That's why the company exists, and the money made is just how you keep track of how they are currently doing in the market. It's important, but short term, and shouldn't take all of the attention for what the company does. Jobs' perfectionism was legendary and included telling engineers working on the original Apple Mac that the circuit boards, which no customer would ever see, were ugly and needed to be as beautiful as possible because "A great carpenter isn't going to use lousy wood for the back of a cabinet even though nobody's going to see it.". That level of perfectionism made Jobs hellish to work with, but led to iconic products such as the iPod, iPhone and iPad. This focus on the product, and not the revenue, led ultimately to Apple becoming the most profitable company on the planet.

Salesman vs Product Guy

Jobs viewed the world in binary terms and described his colleagues as geniuses or assholes, and ideas as brilliant or shit. These opinions could change during the week or even the day. This either/or mindset made him think he was a product guy, and his replacement at Apple when he was pushed out, John Sculley, was a salesman. While Jobs' passion of product design was legendary, he's blinkered in categorising people as either salespeople or something else. Leaders need to be able to sell their ideas and vision to their peers, to customers, and to the board. If they can't do that then no product will ever get built. Jobs was masterful at that and his team creating the first Mac described it as his "reality distortion field". When Jobs was in full flow you believed anything was possible, and only sobered up when you were on your own later and stuck with the horrible problem of making the impossible happen. It often did.

In business we all need to sell. This doesn't mean we must lose the love of the products we make, or have to become manipulative, unethical, or any other cliched view of what salespeople do. The sleazy second hand car salesperson is a lazy stereotype. We can sell in our own style and without compromising what we believe in, but that doesn't change the need to do it. When a salesperson really believes in their product it's a much more compelling and interesting presentation, and some of the best salespeople I've worked with knew what they were selling in painstaking detail.

To Sell is Human

Not long ago I spent a couple of days delivering an influencing workshop which draws many methods from the world of sales. The first thing we covered was the idea that if you are proposing a project, going for an interview, or making a presentation then you are essentially selling something. People give you their time and attention in return for the ideas you offer. It's an exchange, and what's being exchanged is different to giving money for a second-hand car, but it's still an exchange. Our time and attention are in high demand and we only have so much to spend.

In Dan Pink's book To Sell is Human he presents research on US workers who don't sell a product or service in the classical sense, but spend about 41% of their time "persuading people to give up something they value for something you have". The respondents felt that this activity was critical to the success in their roles, and even more important than other activities which took more of their time. The more we can accept that we all sell then the more impressive our presentations and proposals will be, and the better we will do in interviews.

About The Author

Alasdair Graham is the founder of Apex Discovery and a coach who helps leaders and businesses grow. If you found this blog post useful then please share it.

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