Three Things I Learned at Breakfast with Apple’s Former CEO

In 2014, I was sitting at a table on the 13th floor of a building that overlooked Palm Beach, FL. The sun was still ascending from the horizon as the first course of breakfast was being served. A tall, thin blondish grey haired man made his way to a stool positioned in the front of the room. Good morning, I’m John Sculley, former CEO of Apple.

The table of youthful entrepreneurs and creatives around me all took note, including myself. It wasn’t until last week, as I was going through old notebooks, that I stumbled upon the words I wrote that morning. Upon review, the lessons feel more relevant now than they were then.

Free Agent Nation

John didn’t talk too much about what this idea of free agent nation meant to him, but it was a glimpse into the future because four years later, nearly half the U.S. workforce is involved in remote work in some capacity or another while 22% of Americans work from home.

If freedom is our most precious commodity, then the freedom to choose when and where you’ll be at a given moment is a fantastic bargaining tool for employers. Looking back, we can see that The Great Recession put this idea of not having to step foot into an office in motion. The false sense of security, as a result of the failed economy, set an entire generation (millennials) on a path seeking purpose and meaning. When coming up against a position of interest, there’s a two-way interview that often results in many answers to the question why?

Hiring and furthermore work is a bit more like the tango than one-way dictation because it takes two willing participants to meet each other moment by moment. Paths become journeys, and individuals become less of an employee and more of voluntary stakeholders, at the end of the day, which I think is what John meant when he said Free Agents.

Steve Jobs’ Philosophy

John spoke openly about his and Steve’s relationship and specifically mentioned a time when he and Steve went for a walk through Stanford’s campus. John was responding to a question that someone asked about the effectiveness of Steve Job’s leadership. From the audience, “Do you think Steve could have made an impact on the world through a more democratic or servant way of leadership?” With a sly chuckle, John went on to tell the story of he and Steve walking together and shared; Steve had a philosophy, Zoom out, connect the dots, then zoom in and simplify.

Moreover, Steve was the master of simplification, John said, in my experience, it’s tough to abide by Steve’s philosophy unless someone is making most of the decisions because democracy can be messy and not practical. Steve made mistakes, but he made decisions. Right or wrong, Steve generally was on the correct course. He seduced incredibly talented people to come work for him and got them to do things they never imagined possible. Also, he was the most celebrated presenter we’ve ever seen.

Jeff Bezos is the Most like Steve Jobs

“In 2014 everything was going wrong. Amazon introduced the Fire smartphone, one of the bigger flops in the history of consumer electronics. It posted its steepest quarterly loss before taxes and interest — an ignominious milestone for a company with a history of slim or no profits. Revenue growth in the 2014 holiday season was the second­-worst since 2001, and executives started to sound downright pessimistic as if the business was starting to mature or even stall.” Bloomberg

Looking back, our breakfast with John Sculley took place sometime around the end of February 2014. At that time, if you purchased ten shares of Amazon, you would have made $14,130, T E N shares! Amazon stock was around $380 at the time when John spoke about Jeff Bezos.

I don’t know if John had a personal relationship with Jeff, but he likened him to Steve Jobs, so I assume he had an idea of Jeff’s character and vision or maybe he was just astutely aware of his business practices. My takeaway from that statement was that John was taking a moment to draw some parallels that would serve as context to an era of CEOs that were shaping industries.

When speaking of his time at Pepsi, Pepsi was like going into a gladiator stadium. Head to head brand warfare, the Pepsi Challenge, and the diversification of sugar water portfolios to meet the palates of the globe. These were all moves made by industry giants to earn market share rather than the shaping of industries and the creation of ecosystems both things that Steve and Jeff in modern day have done markedly well.

from left to right — Chris Callahan, John Sculley, Nicholas Mohnacky

Four years later, I’m writing this article while sipping a latte at a Bay Area coffee shop. And as soon as I hit the publish button, I’m going to close my laptop and head to a Stanford Alumni luncheon. I may even take a stroll through the campus to retrace the steps John and Steve took back then.

Nicholas Mohnacky — CEO, bnotes

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