Bobo has another piece telling us we just can’t cut it in today’s world. In “Skills in Flux” he scolds us — saying that we are already using a set of subtle, flexible new skills to fit the new economy, and it’s time we understood them. (As if he had a clue…) I went for the shortest, pithiest comment today, from “Ian” in West Palm Beach, FL: “David Brook’s default mode is condescension. His columns reek of it.” Mr. Nocera considers “The Hidden Talent of Steve Jobs” and says genius alone didn’t bring Apple back. It took management chops. Here’s Bobo:
Several years ago, Doug Lemov began studying videos of excellent teachers. He focused not on their big strategies but on their microgestures: How long they waited before calling on students to answer a question (to give the less confident students time to get their hands up); when they paced about the classroom and when they stood still (while issuing instructions, to emphasize the importance of what’s being said); how they moved around the room toward a student whose mind might be wandering.
In an excellent piece on Lemov for The Guardian, Ian Leslie emphasizes that these subtle skills are often not recognized or even discussed by those who talk about education policy, or even by those who evaluate teachers.
Leslie notes that the Los Angeles school system tabulated the performance of roughly 6,000 teachers, using measures of student achievement. The best performing teacher in the whole system was a woman named Zenaida Tan. Up until that report, she was completely unheralded. The skills she possessed were invisible. Meanwhile, less important traits were measured on her evaluations (three times she was late to pick up students from recess).
In part, Lemov is talking about the skill of herding cats. The master of cat herding senses when attention is about to wander, knows how fast to move a diverse group, senses the rhythm between lecturing and class participation, varies the emotional tone. This is a performance skill that surely is relevant beyond education.
This raises an important point. As the economy changes, the skills required to thrive in it change, too, and it takes a while before these new skills are defined and acknowledged.
For example, in today’s loosely networked world, people with social courage have amazing value. Everyone goes to conferences and meets people, but some people invite six people to lunch afterward and follow up with four carefully tended friendships forevermore. Then they spend their lives connecting people across networks.
People with social courage are extroverted in issuing invitations but introverted in conversation — willing to listen 70 percent of the time. They build not just contacts but actual friendships by engaging people on multiple levels. If you’re interested in a new field, they can reel off the names of 10 people you should know. They develop large informal networks of contacts that transcend their organization and give them an independent power base. They are discriminating in their personal recommendations since character judgment is their primary currency.
Similarly, people who can capture amorphous trends with a clarifying label also have enormous worth. Karl Popper observed that there are clock problems and cloud problems. Clock problems can be divided into parts, but cloud problems are indivisible emergent systems. A culture problem is a cloud, so is a personality, an era and a social environment.
Since it is easier to think deductively, most people try to turn cloud problems into clock problems, but a few people are able to look at a complex situation, grasp the gist and clarify it by naming what is going on.
Such people tend to possess negative capacity, the ability to live with ambiguity and not leap to premature conclusions. They can absorb a stream of disparate data and rest in it until they can synthesize it into one trend, pattern or generalization.
Such people can create a mental model that helps you think about a phenomenon. As Oswald Chambers put it, “The author who benefits you most is not the one who tells you something you did not know before, but the one who gives expression to the truth that has been dumbly struggling in you for utterance.”
We can all think of many other skills that are especially valuable right now:
Making nonhuman things intuitive to humans. This is what Steve Jobs did.
Purpose provision. Many people go through life overwhelmed by options, afraid of closing off opportunities. But a few have fully cultivated moral passions and can help others choose the one thing they should dedicate themselves to.
Opposability. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” For some reason I am continually running across people who believe this is the ability their employees and bosses need right now.
Cross-class expertise. In a world dividing along class, ethnic and economic grounds some people are culturally multilingual. They can operate in an insular social niche while seeing it from the vantage point of an outsider.
One gets the impression we’re confronted by a giant cultural lag. The economy emphasizes a new generation of skills, but our vocabulary describes the set required 30 years ago. Lord, if somebody could just identify the skills it takes to give a good briefing these days, that feat alone would deserve the Nobel Prize.
And some people actually think he’s a “deep thinker”… Here’s Mr. Nocera:
The relationship between journalists and Steve Jobs could often be fraught, but there were always a handful of reporters he liked and trusted. They included John Markoff of The New York Times; Steven Levy, formerly of Wired magazine (he’s now at Medium); Walt Mossberg, the longtime technology columnist for The Wall Street Journal (he’s now at Re/code); and Brent Schlender of Fortune. They had all been on the technology beat seemingly forever, and they had known Jobs for decades.
As Schlender writes in “Becoming Steve Jobs,” the forthcoming book he co-authored with Rick Tetzeli, he first met Jobs in April 1986, eight months after the Apple co-founder had been ousted by John Sculley, then Apple’s chief executive. Jobs, who had started a new company called NeXT, was 31. Schlender, who had just joined The Wall Street Journal’s San Francisco bureau, was 32.
During the next quartercentury, Schlender conducted “more than 150 interviews and informal conversations” with Jobs. He wrote cover stories for Fortune about Apple, some of which Jobs liked, and some of which he hated. On occasion, he visited Jobs at his home in Palo Alto, Calif. What began as a subject-journalist relationship evolved into something deeper — “a long, complicated and mostly rewarding relationship,” as Schlender characterizes it in the book.
So it is not a huge surprise that Schlender — and his friend Tetzeli, a former Fortune deputy managing editor — would see Jobs in a different light than most. (Disclosure: I worked with Schlender and Tetzeli during my decade at Fortune.) After Jobs died, they write, the coverage reflected “stagnant stereotypes.” On the one hand, “Steve was a genius with a flair for design,” whose powers of persuasion were such that he could convince people that the sun rose in the west and set in the east. On the other hand, he was also “a pompous jerk,” who humiliated employees and “disregarded everyone else in his single-minded pursuit of perfection.”
It is Schlender’s and Tetzeli’s contention that Jobs was a far more complex and interesting man than the half-genius/half-jerk stereotype, and a good part of their book is an attempt to craft a more rounded portrait. What makes their book important is that they also contend — persuasively, I believe — that, the stereotype notwithstanding, he was not the same man in his prime that he had been at the beginning of his career. The callow, impetuous, arrogant youth who co-founded Apple was very different from the mature and thoughtful man who returned to his struggling creation and turned it into a company that made breathtaking products while becoming the dominant technology company of our time. Had he not changed, they write, he would not have succeeded.
For Schlender and Tetzeli, the crucial period was the most overlooked part of Jobs’s career: The years from 1985 to 1997, when he was in exile from Apple and running NeXT. As a business, NeXT was a failure. Begun as a company that was going to bring affordable yet superior computers to the higher education market, it eventually had to abandon the hardware side of the business and become a pure software company. The point that is normally made about NeXT is that when Jobs returned to Apple, he brought with him the NeXTSTEP operating system, which became the foundation for a new generation of Macs and was a critical component of the company’s revival.
Every bit as important, though, was that Jobs brought his core group of executives with him to Apple, and they stayed with him for years. At the same time he was running NeXT, Jobs also owned Pixar, the animation studio he bought from George Lucas. It took years before Pixar came out with its first full-length movie, “Toy Story.” During that time, he saw how Ed Catmull, Pixar’s president, managed the company’s creative talent. Catmull taught Jobs how to manage employees.
When Jobs returned to Apple, he was more patient — with people and with products. His charisma still drew people to him, but he no longer drove them away with his abrasive behavior and impossible demands. He had also learned that his ideas weren’t always the right ones, and he needed to listen to others.
Perhaps the most important example of this was the App Store. Jobs had initially opposed allowing outside developers to build apps for the iPhone, but he did a quick about-face once he realized he was wrong. The App Store has been hugely important in making the iPhone perhaps the most profitable consumer electronic device ever.
Jobs has long been hailed as one of the great creative minds of modern business. His genius for creating products and his marketing flair have also been rightly hailed. All of that comes through in “Becoming Steve Jobs,” but so does something else: He was a great manager. You can’t build a great company if you aren’t one.