The Man Who Ousted Steve Jobs on Asia and Leadership
To many, John Sculley is famous for firing Steve Jobs from Apple in 1985. Now 74, the former Apple CEO and president at Pepsi spoke at the recent ITMA CIO Executive Summit in Singapore, sharing his views on the inner workings of company boards and the differing approaches to leading a business.
He also took time out to talk to Chee-Sing Chan, Group Editor of CFO Innovation sister publication Enterprise Innovation, and others in media about Asian talent, innovation and the key elements of effective modern leadership. Excerpts:
Having traveled and gained vast experience across the globe and in Asia, do you see any difference in how Asians approach entrepreneurship compared to the United States?
Actually I see a tremendous difference. I’d say in terms of sheer talent, it’s extraordinary how much talent there is in Asia. But while there are great success stories that are developing in Asia, on the other hand I also see a major limiting factor.
That factor is that the Asian model tends to be a very top-down model, where the education system looks for perfection. The graduates of universities in the Asian culture tend to be the best students in the class. But in the past, we have seen many leaders of the current leading high-tech companies often are college dropouts or have not been very successful students.
These individuals have been motivated by their desire and passion to change the rules. Whereas Asians play by the rules, the entrepreneurs from the West are all about breaking the rules. And this is a cultural issue; it’s not a talent issue.
And in your view does it require a democratic society to be a place that is conducive for innovation?
I don’t think innovation has much to do with democracy. In fact, I think that if you try to be too democratic, you’re going to be making compromises, because democracy is by nature a compromise-based system.
So if you want to have true innovation, you have to be prepared to do things and take risks and make choices and maybe fail and then try again.
When we talk about breaking the rules, someone’s got to ultimately make that critical decision. You can’t turn it out to everybody to vote on it. So I’m not a big fan of a democratic process in terms of running a high-tech business.
If you look at the really successful innovators in the industry, I’d say the person closest to Steve Jobs in terms of who’s the next Steve Jobs . . . The only person I’ve seen so far is Jeff Bezos. He takes big risks, he can make the decisions, he’s very smart, people believe in what he’s doing, and Amazon is just an incredibly creative type of company.
You come to Singapore often, and you have a business partner here. What’s your take on Singapore? What more can it do to make it a little closer to Silicon Valley in terms of innovation?
Well, Singapore is successful in so many ways. Anybody who has ever been here comes away with nothing but admiration for what Singapore has accomplished. The key word I would attach to Singapore is adaptability. Singapore has always been able to adapt to whatever the greatest opportunity or challenges happen to be.
Plus you have benefited from extraordinary leadership. I don’t know of any country in the world that has had such consistently strong leadership over so many decades as Singapore has. So as much as Singapore is admired, I don’t think anyone’s figured out how to actually replicate it.
It’s so good, but it’s also so dependent upon the leaders who have created it and the system that it is built upon. It’s built on a system that you couldn’t bring to the United States.
In our democratic system [in the United States], it’s all about compromise. Our system is based on special interests; we do things, which I would call legally corrupt.
But does the Singapore system help in innovation and the development of entrepreneurs?
I think if there’s a weakness in Singapore, it’s there. Because you have a system that has been so successful and at the same time is based on a disciplined set of rules, you can often miss out on the creative leap.
Innovation comes from the creative disruption that comes from a messy system like we have [in the US]. There’s something advantageous about a messy system, and we have a messy system. You have a disciplined system, and so that’s the tradeoff.
Do you think Silicon Valley will be hard to replicate anywhere else?
Not necessarily. It’s a lot easier to replicate it today than it was at any time in the past. The reason is that people don’t have to live all in the same place to go and build successful companies.
I work virtually. I’m in constant communications with everybody I need to be and I can do it all remotely. That would have been unheard of a decade ago. I really think that, maybe for the first time, it’s going to be possible to replicate a significant part of Silicon Valley because of this virtualization.
The one thing that you cannot easily replicate in Silicon Valley is that Silicon Valley has this amorphous thing that is kind of connected, but has no particular structure to it. It has no head. There’s no brain in Silicon Valley that oversees everything, but all these things are connected.
You have some leading companies like Yahoo that have pulled back from this idea of working virtually or remotely. Is that a real trend reversal because they feel that they need to have more face-to-face interaction?
I think when Marissa Mayer moved into Yahoo [as CEO] – and I’m not an insider – my bet is after about a week she was there, she must have seen the organization was much worse than expected.
The Internet has gone through several different models, yet Yahoo is still trapped back in a model that may be obsolete. People are wondering what she is doing with this call for people to return to the office. But I think she’s just trying to pull the thing together. She’s got to give it focus and a rally point.
You either join us and be part of the company and come to work, or go work somewhere else – make that choice. She’s got to change the culture and she’s got a limited amount of time.
Telling people that they can’t work from home any more is just a piece to the puzzle. I wouldn’t draw any wider conclusion from it than that.
Another company trying to turn itself around is HP – what do you think will happen there?
I’ve known Meg Whitman since she worked at Hasbro. A very talented lady who did a great job at eBay and HP is lucky to have her. You talk about a board that ought to be spanked. It’s just incredible how many mistakes have been made there.
Everything is going in the wrong direction for them. It bought EDS at the height of its value and guess what – nobody buys IT services that way anymore. Then it bought Autonomy at the wrong time for the wrong price.
Then it has the printer business – which was at one point the majority of their profit – but people don’t print as much anymore. And you still have its PC business and its failed mobile platform.
The company was clearly without leadership over a number of years. And she’s stepped in – it’s amazing to me that she even accepted the job.
You are very keen on the idea of leadership mentoring. If you were to mentor an organization with an entrepreneur who has Steve Jobs’ temperament and talent, how would you do it?
I wish I knew the answer to that because I really don’t know. Steve Jobs was so talented and he was so temperamental. The idea that anybody could manage him is absurd.
But Steve would listen to people he respected. He listened to me as long as he respected me. And when I didn’t agree with him, he didn’t respect me. So I don’t really have an answer for that.
So in the technology space, what do you see as the next big thing?
I think wearables are going to be huge. And I think it’s all about – not just the sensors – but about the big data analytics.
I studied enough mathematics that when I was in school we were doing statistics and Markov chain analysis. We were deep into the probability math, but you couldn’t do anything really useful with it as the computers weren’t powerful enough.
Well, today computers have the necessary power. Predictive analytics will change many industries and heath in particular. So I’m hugely interested in the combination of sensors and big data analytics. I think it’s going to be world-changing over the next decade.
We hear how technology budgets are shifting to chief marketing officers and other business executives. There’s a sense that maybe the CIO is losing influence. As a CEO, how do you see that?
That’s a great question. I was just reading that the technology budget for CMOs, chief marketing budgets, is soon to be larger than the technology budget for many CIOs.
I think that you have to step back and say every CEO has to be deeply involved in the technology issues of their company. If they aren’t, they’re probably going to have a very unhappy surprise that somebody has disrupted their business while they were sleeping.
The thing that makes running companies different today compared when I started at Pepsi is that we were in the era of the imperial CEO. You could never admit that you weren’t equally good at everything that needed to be done.
Well, that’s absurd. Nobody tries to do that in leadership any more. There’s a much greater role for teams in leading businesses today.
The point is I think we’re going to see continual change in how successful businesses are run. And they’re going to look a lot less like the world which I have come from.
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