Editor’s note: Scott Weiss is a general partner at Andreessen Horowitz and the former co-founder and CEO of IronPort Systems, which was acquired by Cisco in 2007.
When I was a kid, I read tons of superhero comic books. I fantasized about superpowers, but the storylines about heroes with massive Achilles’ heels really held my attention the most. They saved the world but had screwed up personal lives, made lots of mistakes, and often acted like complete assholes. In retrospect, I related to their flaws. And, probably not coincidentally, my favorite characters exhibited core weaknesses I had experienced: Spider-Man (immaturity), Iron Man (overconfidence/hubris), and Wolverine (rage). Ironically, when the character’s weakness comingled with the superpower, it would often spur them to succeed against impossible odds.
It was in this context that I was riveted reading Steve Jobs’ biography by Walter Isaacson. Given the number of different interviews and unfettered access granted to Isaacson, it felt like an incredibly authentic account of Jobs’ life. His greatest accomplishments, mistakes, superpowers, and flaws were laid out about as raw as I’ve ever read. Steve’s superpowers were many: He was wickedly brilliant, could see around corners, and had unparalleled understanding of how people interact with technology, to name just a few.
Did Steve have an Achilles’ heel? From the book, one could conclude that he was an extremely demanding boss. Like a beacon, superstars from every function (e.g. engineering, design, marketing, etc.) were drawn to work for Steve. They described his aura as absolutely overwhelming. And Steve pushed these A+ players to extraordinary, impossible achievements. Steve’s drive for speed and perfection often resulted in harsh, public criticism — usually directed at his very best people. Steve would constantly look over their work and declare, “This is shit!” or “This really sucks!” On my Kindle, I searched the words “shit” and “sucks” and counted 24 instances where he used one of those phrases referring to someone’s work/product.
I’ve had a number of entrepreneurs suggest that this persona isn’t unique to Steve Jobs but a common trait among some of the most successful founder/CEOs in the world. Larry Ellison, Bill Gates, Larry Page, and Jeff Bezos have all been reported as similarly caustic at times. Is this something to be emulated?
As I was reading the book, something struck me like a hammer: Despite Steve Jobs’ choice of words, lack of empathy, and sometimes prickly demeanor, he spent a huge amount of time giving his most talented employees constant, hard, critical feedback.
Thinking about how most companies dole out feedback — if they do at all — it’s usually directed at the bottom quartile of performers versus the top. A typical manager at review time spends 80% of their time preparing detailed reviews on the bottom 25%. The top quartile gets lame, short reviews — the equivalent of “You’re doing great, keep up the good work!” So, a manager takes all that time and effort to get someone doing the work of half of a full-time employee (FTE) to do the work of .75 or 1 FTE. In contrast, Steve Jobs — with his feedback energy directed at the top — manages to motivate people already doing the work of 2 or 3 FTEs to do the work of 10, maybe 20 FTEs. Now that’s serious leverage! Could this be a superpower comingling with a weakness?
I’ve found that the A players are comparably lazy with regards to their potential. Without serious motivation, they will never reach it—or even try. Despite his delivery, I believe Steve’s critical energy was directionally correct.
Here are a few other suggestions for motivating top talent:
A constant challenge for leaders is to find effective AND positive ways to motivate. The very best companies have inspirational founders who have found a way to coax the superpowers out of their top employees. When the top quartile contributes at 5x to 10x, it makes a serious difference.
Started by Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, and Ronald Wayne, Apple has expanded from computers to consumer electronics over the last 30 years, officially changing their name from Apple Computer, Inc. to Apple, Inc. in January 2007. Among the key offerings from Apple’s product line are: Pro line laptops (MacBook Pro) and desktops (Mac Pro), consumer line laptops (MacBook Air) and desktops (iMac), servers (Xserve), Apple TV, the Mac OS X and Mac OS X Server operating systems, the iPod, the...
Steve Jobs was the co-founder and CEO of Apple and formerly Pixar. Steve Jobs was born in San Francisco, California to Joanne Simpson and a Syrian father. Paul and Clara Jobs of Mountain View, California then adopted him. In 1972, Jobs graduated from Homestead High School in Cupertino, California and enrolled in Reed College in Portland, Oregon. One semester later, he had dropped out, later taking up the study of philosophy and foreign cultures. Steve Jobs had a deep-seated interest in...
Walter Isaacson is the president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan educational and policy studies institute based in Washington, DC. He has been the chairman and CEO of CNN and the editor of TIME magazine. He is the author of Steve Jobs (2011), Einstein: His Life and Universe (2007), Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (2003), and Kissinger: A Biography (1992), and coauthor of The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made (1986). Isaacson was born on May...
Scott Weiss is a partner at Andreessen Horowitz. Formerly, he was co-founder and CEO of IronPort Systems, which was acquired by Cisco in 2007. While at Cisco, Weiss was the vice president and general manager of the Security Technology Group. Previously, he was also a managing director and entrepreneur-in-residence at IdeaLab, where he met IronPort co-founder Scott Banister. Prior to IdeaLab, Weiss was employee no. 13 at Hotmail and was responsible for all partnership and revenue generating...