There’s been much discussion - and many words written - about the recent resignation of Steve Jobs as Apple’s Chief Executive Officer. As I reflect on all that he has achieved, I am reminded of George Bernard Shaw’s observation that “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” I would like to dedicate this brief article to unreasonable men (and women), and to perfectionist bosses…
It’s clear that Steve is a hard taskmaster, and by all accounts a challenging person to work with, particularly if you are not on the top of your game at all times. But the consequence has been a series of brilliantly innovative products and services that customers are prepared to pay a premium price for, and which command remarkable brand loyalty.
They are products that could never have merged from the sort of dumbing-down focus-group exercises so beloved of large corporates who are entirely devoid of any insight and who seek instead to substitute process for imagination. They are the outcome of unrelentingly high standards, an incredibly talented team and of a set of values that are now deeply embedded in Apple’s corporate DNA.
And - if my experience of all my interactions with Apple employees over the years is anything to go by - these attitudes and behaviours are promulgated throughout the organisation, and reflected in very customer touch-point. Apple, at all times, seems to have the ability to challenge itself and its employees to do better. This is so deeply embedded in the corporate culture that Steve’s departure as CEO is unlikely to change things.
In Praise of Perfectionist Bosses
If your experience is anything like mine, you will have learned more and grown faster when working with bosses or clients that set high standards and have dared you to do better - even if you (as I have) sometimes find the here-and-now pressure somewhat discomforting. It’s not an environment that everyone enjoys. But I look back to those roles and assignments with a profound sense of learning and accomplishment.
The reverse is also true - I look back on those times when I haven’t felt stretched or challenged as wasted opportunities. I could have learned more, and done better. But it wasn’t expected. In those situations, as I’ve learned over the years, you need to challenge yourself to go further than you are being asked to.
Difficult customers are the most valuable
If you’re in the products or services business, you’ve probably got a number of customers that appear at face value to be unreasonably demanding. They are the ones pressing for new functionality or for better performance. Now, I’ll acknowledge that this group sometimes includes a handful of people or organisations that verge on the psychopathic.
But by and large, these most demanding customers are the very ones that can help you work out how your products or services can be improved - and how it can be made to appeal to a larger and more profitable audience. My advice is to take the flak - even to welcome it - and to accept it as your opportunity to learn how you can do better.
What if you’re not being challenged?
If you’re not being challenged, you have two options: to accept an undemanding existence and as a consequence to miss your chance to learn, grow and contribute, or to challenge yourself to do better.
Just imagine that you’re working for Steve Jobs. Would what you are doing meet his high standards? Does what you are delivering truly advance the state of the art? And if not, what are you going to do about it?