You Don’t Know What You Want Until You Are Shown….iStory About Steve Jobs

October 9, 2011 by Ken Nowack

“A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

Steve Jobs

I remember the very first personal computer I purchased in the early 1980s with a buddy of mine at an IBM retail store in Beverly Hills, CA.  It was an IBM XT PC with an internal 10MB hard drive.  I will never forget the store salesman saying to me that I really needed to buy the 20MB hard drive (it was really inexpensive to upgrade so it didn’t feel like a typical sales pitch). I recall saying to the sales person, “Why would you ever need that much memory?”  I did wind up buying the PC with the extra memory only to replace it with another model in about 2 years–mostly because the new software that was available that I used barely would work on the older system.

It’s funny now, but I really didn’t know what I wanted (or needed) until I was shown it.

I never met Steve Jobs directly but I feel as if I got a glimpse of two of the attributes he was well known for (aesthetics and functionality) through a friend who worked with him during the time Steve was CEO of Pixar.

I met our friend, who headed up the development of the “new” Pixar campus in Emeryville during a cycling/hiking trip on one of our vacatons.  He had a small vacation home in the Napa valley area and we would go up periodically to spend the weekend to relax, doing some hiking/cycling and wine tasting with him.

On one of the first weekend sojourns we made we arrived at his home on Friday night eager to cook a great dinner together and catch up on work and life.  The house had an older phone attached to an answer machine that would play the voice of the caller as it recorded the message if you didn’t pick up the phone to answer the call.

The phone rang about 8pm and the firm voice said, “Hi, this is Steve and I need to discuss with you some ideas on the Italian granite I want–can you please call me back?”  At that time, I didn’t know too much about exactly what my friend did exactly in his role at Pixar but I just had to ask if the “Steve” that left the message was Steve Jobs.  He casually said it was and that he expected Steve to call a few more times during the weekend as he knew he was at his Napa vacation home taking a needed break from a busy week.

It was getting late after dinner and I was curious when my friend would call him back.  Finally, just before we all decided to retireafter a very relaxing night I just had to ask my firned why he didn’t call Steve back knowing that I would have likely done so immediately given my OC personality and my need to be responsive to the team members in our own company and particularly to our very valuable customers.  My friend told me that Steve had the highest expectations for every staff member and what he valued more than anything was getting reliable results (quality and functionality) on all projects and that he wouldn’t be upset with him for not returning his call.  He said he already had a meeting with Steve on Monday to discuss what he was calling about and that he wasn’t going to call him back over the weekend even if he called again. 

Wow, I thought.  Who wouldn’t want to talk to Steve Jobs about Italian granite and the vision of the new Pixar campus?  Who wouldn’t call their boss back even if it was on a Friday night kicking off the weekend?

The “I’m not returning Steve’s call” became a long-standing joke between us but it was a glimpse about how important the “look” of something was to Steve Jobs–even if was the design that went into the Pixar campus and his direct involvement in making sure things were done right.

When my friend finished the completion of the Pixar campus, Steve called him into his office and asked him casually about one of the new cars that was apparently taking two parking spaces in the employee parking lot.  My friend recognized the model of the new car as one he was keen to possibly consider buying if he got a bonus that year.  My friend told me that Steve then pulled out a set of car keys and said, “The car that is parked and taking two spaces is yours–just a small token of thanks from me for all your hard work to make the Pixar campus so special.”

I haven’t spoken to my friend in quite a while but I’m guessing that if he still has that car, it will be a reminder of the boss he blew off on that Friday night and how much he evoked a commitment to excellence, attention to design and delivery of quality work that my friend valued so much in Steve Jobs and how he tried to emulate these values in his work at Pixar. 

On a subsquent visit my friend provided me with a tour of the Pixar campus and I was pretty impressed with the functionality of work spaces, how teams were encouraged to “decorate” their space to create an environment of creativity and collaboration and the beauty of the Italian granite that was used in a few places.

For many years I told my wife Denise I really would have loved to interview Steve Jobs to find out his leadership secrets on how to manage and motivate “artists” who really value autonomy and independence.  To me, that might actually be one of the most interesting qualities of great leaders who head up creative organizations and something that Steve Jobs should be recognized more for.  There has been a lot written since the death of Steve Jobs about his unique ability to create a vision of new products that truly merge the artistic side of design with efficient functionality.

As a consumer I have been happy with all of my Apple products including the MacBook Air that I am using to write this Blog because they always seem to work–and they also seem “stylish.”  As a psychologist, I admire Steve Jobs as a leader for creating a vision of a better tomorrow and getting both the talent at Apple and consumers to truly be shown what we need and want.

I’m convinced that leadership effectiveness and entrepreneurial vision are somewhat learned and also part of our blueprint…I guess if you consistently produce quality results and can translate your boss’s vision into efficient, functional and stylish outcomes you too can get away with not returning their phone calls now and then….Be well….

Kenneth Nowack, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist (PSY13758) and President & Chief Research Officer/Co-Founder of Envisia Learning, is a member of the Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations. Ken also serves as the Associate Editor of Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. His recent book Clueless: Coaching People Who Just Don’t Get It is available for free for a limited time by signing up for free blog updates (Learn more at our website)

Posted in Engagement, Leadership Development

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