Steve Jobs, the Way John Sculley Tells It

A quarter-century after the best-known romance and breakup in modern executive history, the partner who vanished has popped up with insights to share.

Image courtesy of Flickr user leoncillo sabino.

When In Search of Excellence appeared in 1982, it instantly divided management writing into Before (The Age of Drucker) and After (the age when even Malcolm Gladwell qualifies as a “management author”). The dividing characteristic was stories. Post-Excellence, any idea that any business thinker offered came illustrated by anecdote. Sometimes lots of anecdotes.

And in all that time since 1982, no anecdote has etched itself into collective memory better than the story of Steve Jobs recruiting John Sculley, then the CEO of Pepsi-Cola, by asking, “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want a chance to change the world?”

Leander Kahney has very probably repeated that anecdote thousands of times. Kahney is editor and publisher of cultofmac.com, and author of Inside Steve’s Brain (the most managerially useful book on the Jobs shelf). He used it again recently when he published an extraordinary interview he elicited from John Sculley. Go read it here. It’s an ex-CEO conversation like no other I’ve seen.

In a short space, it’s hard to convey what makes the Sculley-Kahney chat so provocative. Part of it is Sculley’s abject frankness and vulnerability — his psychic near-nakedness.

Looking back, it was a big mistake that I was ever hired to be CEO … When Steve left I still didn’t know very much about computers. My decision was first to fix the company, but I didn’t know how to fix companies...

I’m actually convinced that if Steve hadn’t come back when he did — if they had waited another six months — Apple would have been history. It would have been gone, absolutely gone.

But even better are Sculley’s efforts to describe what he calls Jobs’s sacrosanct “methodology”— design-centric, customer-experience-focused and committed to the belief that it’s what you decide not to do that matters.

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