The importance of spotting talent

With the death of Steve Jobs, there will be countless articles covering his career, and many of us can learn a great deal from his success. We’ve already posted his advice to college graduates about finding what you love to do. Jobs was also an incredible innovator and manager, even if he was a tyrant at times.

If you’re a manager or you run your own business, this story might be helpful. It comes from a Fast Company article after Jobs stepped down as Apple’s CEO but published before his death.

Jobs had recently come back to the company after a 12-year hiatus working for two of his own startups: NeXT, which made ultra-high-end computers, and Pixar. He was taking a tour of Apple, becoming reacquainted with what the company had become since he’d left. It must have been a sobering, even ugly, sight–Apple was dying at the hands of Microsoft, IBM, Dell, and other competitors that were doing what Apple did, only cheaper and with faster processors.

In a dusty basement across the road from Apple’s main building, Jobs found a solitary designer who was ready to quit, languishing amid a stack of prototypes. Among them was a monolithic monitor with a teardrop swoop, which integrated all of a computer’s guts into a single package. And in that room, Jobs saw what middle managers did not. He saw the future. Almost immediately, he told the designer, Jonathan Ive, that from here on out they’d be working side by side on a new line of computers.

Jobs may not be the greatest technologist or engineer of his generation. But he is perhaps the greatest user of technology to ever live, and it was to Apple’s great fortune that he also happened to be the company’s founder.

Those computers that Ive and Jobs worked on became, of course, the iMac–a piece of hardware designed with an unprecedented user focus, all the way to the handle on top, which made it easy to pull out of the box. (“That’s the great thing about handles,” Ive told Fast Company in 1999. “You know what they’re used for.”) That single moment in the basement with Ive says a great deal about what made Jobs the most influential innovator of our time. It shows an ability to see a company from the outside, rather than inside as a line manager. He didn’t see the proto iMac as a liability or a curiosity. He saw something that was simply better than what had preceded it, and he was willing to bet on that instinct. That required an ability to think first and foremost as someone who lives with technology rather than produces it.

Jobs was always able to see opportunity and usable innovation that others could not see. He could also spot talent and put people in situations where they can thrive. The story of his visit to Xerox is legendary, as they had the graphical user interface and had no idea people would want it in their home computers.

You may not have a Jonathan Ive in your organization or revolutionary products sitting on a shelf, but you probably have some very talented people who are stuck in jobs that waste their talent. Take the time to know your team, and dig deeper than your immediate reports. Find the talent, let them work, and your company will have a better chance to thrive.


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