Was Steve Jobs an HR Nightmare or Innovator?

History books and biographies serve the purpose of recognizing winners: the individuals or groups that come out on top of a rough journey. We admire them because they make us believe in ourselves; they give us an ideal to strive for.

The one thing with historic figures is that we often forget about their flaws and manage to believe that they were great characters because of the image we’re left with.

There could not be a better example of this than Steve Jobs.

A genius in his own right, Jobs was also a troubled man known to not give credit where it was due, berate employees, and make the people around him work ungodly hours—contributing to his departure from Apple in 1985.

However, his insanity (or brilliance) led the company back to prominence. Even with no professional training in people management or business, he pushed his employees to new levels of innovation and creativity. After his return in 1997 as CEO, Jobs made Apple one of the most profitable companies in the history of the planet.

So, if Jobs were an HR manager, would his personality make your department a nightmare? Or was he simply an HR innovator because of what he got out of employees?

The Crazy-Brilliant Archetype

My nerd side is about to come out, and I don’t mind. One of my favorite quotes from the latest Avengers film came when Tony Stark and Bruce Banner are discussing creating artificial intelligence and Tony convinces Banner, by stating:

“We’re mad scientists. We’re monsters, buddy. We’ve gotta own it.”

The reason I loved it so much was for the mere fact that the crazy ones embraced their madness.

When a Jobs is on your HR team, they’re going to be assertive and aggressive to get things done their way. They won’t align with management 100% of the time, and they might break all sorts of HCM and recruitment rules to hire the people they want for company projects.

The psychometric buildup of the “crazy-brilliant” kinds means they will do whatever they can to make sure that their ideas come to fruition. They don’t want to deal with office politics, rules, or people loafing around. For better or worse, Jobs was a result-oriented madman that wanted to see his ideas thrive, and who, as a manager, would put his people through the ringer to see it happen.

Despite the expertise these “crazy-brilliant” managers bring to the table, they have a major red flag: rule-breaking. They don’t see rules as lines they can’t cross. To them, rules were made up by someone who couldn’t get the job done right. And even though their rule-breaking can create friction, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Without people pushing authority and challenging “the man,” society would be stuck.

Take Elon Musk, the new, “more likable” genius who is not only pushing boundaries with his creations and ideas. He’s throwing out the HR rulebook. He (literally) wants mad scientists and creatives working on his team. In fact, his ideal employee has a hyper-productive schedule, working on multiple projects and working 60-80 hours a week. Musk is looking at people management differently to build a more productive, innovative workforce, while avoiding the title of nightmare manager.

Maybe Musk is a sign of change in HR departments elsewhere, too. When HR teams continue to be more conservative with office policies and strict with their office hours—plus look for talent in old-school ways that don’t embrace social media and mobile recruiting—they miss out on attracting the crazy-brilliant types who can create a ridiculous workplace atmosphere that encourages innovation.

HR practitioners who aren’t glued to old rules, but instead think of redefining and evolving to the needs of today’s workplace can build the most productive and engaged teams.

HR Innovator: 1

HR Nightmare: 0

Getting The Most Out Of Talent

I would like to preface this by saying that a lot of people out there don’t like their managers and leadership. It’s one of the leading causes of disengagement in the United States.

There are several approaches to getting your talent to shine, but Steve Jobs took an unusual one when it came to managing his employees.

He would berate employees, threaten their jobs, threaten to leave them bankrupt, and would even get up in their faces and challenge them. His perfectionism caused him to not only lose a lot of friends, key players, and projects, but it also cost him his job—as people were leaving Apple because of him.

As a manager today, his actions would not fly. All it takes now is one viral social media post of a boss going nuts on an employee and the person is unable to find a leadership position for the rest of his or her life.

Aside from berating employees, Jobs would also coddle and play favorites with people who he deemed to be “on his level.” The most talented people were treated with more respect because he knew that he could get the most out of them, and they would bring the most talent and creation for his products.

Take for instance Jon Ive, the Chief Design Officer of Apple and an employee that Jobs befriended during his second stint at Apple. He had brilliant designs and ideas that were not only utilized, but put Apple back on the map. The same would go for Apple co-founder, Steve Wozniak, the person who is the backbone of Apple. Woz is a genius in his own right, but had he been an extrovert like Jobs, he would be the one receiving credit for making computers a household, and now, portable appliance.

While giving credit and feedback to your employees is all fine and dandy, chastising employees for not meeting an individual’s standards is a managing no-no. So is playing favorites. These are some of the many reasons why a lot of startups are embracing holacracy and doing their best to create a fun culture within their office.

HR is a steward of culture, and if HR professionals don’t understand what makes for good management, then that culture can sour, fast. Jobs’s old managing ways would’ve definitely not have been effective in the new age workplace, where playing to employees strengths is the way to go. If he were working directly in HR with that bad attitude, he’d cause a lot of headaches.

HR Innovator: 1

HR Nightmare: 1

Push Creation And Innovation

Jobs had a very small technical skillset. He’d probably struggle through writing one line of code. However, critics, marketing experts, business people all consider him to be a great innovator.

Why? It’s quite simple, really. He was able to see all the things that made technology difficult and was able to come up with ideas that would make them easier to use for a mainstream audience.

Do you really want to lug around a CD player when going for a jog in 2016? Steve Jobs and his team pushed and created hardware that disrupted the music industry by making it possible to carry 1000 songs in a pair of running shorts.

He was able to crowdsource innovative ideas and bring them all together to make these things possible. Jobs wanted to have the most innovative minds around him so he could come up with the concepts and have them execute it.

Though coming up with a vision and creative ideas is a big part of the product development process, there has to be credit and recognition for the people that work on it. People that like to create are typically result-oriented individuals that enjoy getting a bit of credit for their hard work.

A great leader will always find a way to give credit to the people that have helped them, instead of using Jobs’s approach of taking all the credit for coming up with the look and feel of some of the products that he worked on.

Having innovative HR leaders with a knack for innovation like Jobs would certainly help with locating other innovators for your company. Talent attracts talent, 100% of the time. But, without an understanding that recognition and a huge sense of teamwork and collaboration make for a great company culture, your org will quickly be left with too many big egos in one kitchen. That’s not a good recipe for culture, and one that would make any HR department nightmarish.

HR Innovator: 1

HR Nightmare: 2

So, is this mad-scientist, this outlier that changed a generation, an HR innovator or an HR nightmare?

If we’re playing by the rules, most would agree Jobs was a nightmare from an HR standpoint. His notorious temper, tendency to chastise employees, take all the credit, and play favorites would foster an ultimately toxic company culture. That wouldn’t bode well for attracting the right kind of talent.

That said, the other side of the coin has all of the brilliant work Jobs was able to bring out of people. Crazy-brilliant archetypes must exist to push companies forward, and HR managers need to find, hire, and embrace the select few they can find in their industries if they want to build and encourage an innovative workforce. Just be sure your Jobs leaves out all the threats and credit-hoarding.

Strive to keep some talented people that do ruffle feathers, that aren’t scared to push boundaries. The round pegs in the square holes. It keeps new ideas flowing and inspiration alive in the workplace. Don’t settle for those who bring the whole culture down. Find the crazy ones that think different. They will be the ones that influence even more change, not just in HR, but the world as a whole. 

Innovative HR looks closely at all stages of the employee life cycle.

Read Namely's 

The Journey to Finding—And Empowering—Top Talent




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