The Problem with Steve Jobs' CEO of the Decade Award

One industry observer suggests that the CEO of the Decade aware should have gone to a leader who has not only taken care of the company but also taken extra steps to make the world a better place.
Posted December 17, 2009

Rob Enderle

Rob Enderle

For all practical purposes Steve Jobs deserved Fortune magazine’s CEO of the Decade award. He took a company that was once within months of going under and he turned it into a gleaming star in both the consumer electronics and technology markets.

But he did so by killing all philanthropic activity, by implementing the most aggressive internal security system in any company, and by showcasing a fear-driven methodology for management. In effect, Steve Jobs largely became the Big Brother from Apple’s 1984 commercial. And Orwell’s book warned us about and showcased this path as being very successful.

While this was certainly good for business, I wonder if this focus exclusively on the bottom line – particularly if it results in the reduction of personal freedoms, social responsibility, and freedom – is the example we want to resonate. It doesn’t seem to be very people friendly.

I’m not being critical of Steve Jobs here – he played the game according to the rules that were set and he excelled at them. I’m criticizing rules that favor behavior that seems to be anti-us. Let’s chat about that this week.

IBM Example

What brought this to mind is that last week I was at IBM for an analyst even. While most of the presentation was on the typical technology enhancements, it ended with some things that could save your or my life. Unlike most companies IBM has taken a portion of their R&D budget and focused it on technologies that could improve the quality and length of our lives.

They didn’t show us all of them but the two they did show us were fascinating. One was the near real time 3D modeling of the human body. The example showed how our eyes actually work and it explained that, due to this technology effort, they were able to figure out that how people thought the eye worked was inaccurate – and this knowledge could be a stepping-stone to correcting blindness.

The overall modeling of the human body could allow us to better address illnesses and injuries. Think of the thousands that have been crippled in the military, accidents, and birth defects that could be helped if we understood better how the body worked and particularly how it could be made to heal itself.

Another technology they were aggressively going after was the DNA processor. This is a custom chip that is designed to analyze DNA and reduce the cost of this analysis to less than a quarter of what it now costs. Pharmaceutical companies have evidently said that if this is successful they could custom craft drugs that were uniquely suited to both the problem and the person. This could dramatically improve their effectiveness while substantially reducing the risk of adverse side effects.

Both these efforts could result in substantial profit in the future but both could also never result in anything. Neither is closely tied to existing products. In other words neither effort would be on the short or long list that Steve Jobs would even consider. They apparently have no bearing on who gets selected to be CEO of the decade.

Bill Gates

Bill Gates is an ex-CEO and I get that but he stepped down voluntarily from Microsoft and is now focusing his substantial wealth on solving world hunger, creating a defense for hurricanes, and doing some incredibly forward looking things that could eventually save a lot of lives (even my own).

Here’s the problem: why did he have to quit to do this? Think about it, he is incredibly wealthy but he has a small fraction of the power that Microsoft has as a company. But to move aggressively on projects that could assure Microsoft’s customers go on living (something most would find as rather important) he had to stop being a CEO.

This suggests that not only don’t we award CEOs for being socially and environmentally conscious, we actually penalize them if they have these interests. How smart is that?

HP vs. Apple

Awhile back I wrote about how Greenpeace pounded on HP for using two materials that were in wide industry use for things like sprinkler pipes and to ensure your devices don’t burst into flames.

Greenpeace praised Apple for eliminating them even though Apple really didn’t (there is no replacement technology for one of them). This was in the face of the fact that HP is, as an organization, considered to be one of the greenest US companies in terms of energy conservation, active recycling, and R&D investment. It was also the only company that figured out how to make their green efforts profitable and sustainable.

Greenpeace then rethought this and issued a new ranking, putting HP at the top. Apple is much lower but companies like Sony are at the bottom even though, in Japan, being green is almost religious and irrespective of profitability Sony has made massive plant investments to assure their environment.

This suggests that the way to win is not by being particularly socially conscious or green but by somehow figuring out what Greenpeace wants, making some of us think that all Greenpeace really wants is recognition and maybe a check.

Why do we even allow this? Who wants to play a game with changing rules and where companies that make huge investments in environmentally friendly technologies can still get pounded just as if they had not. Apple’s CEO, for instance, is on record as saying that corporate green efforts are pointless, and given this, I have a hard time disagreeing with him. Isn’t that an incredibly sorry state of affairs?

Wrapping Up: Are we Suicidal?

As we look at the collapse of the financial market and the massive bonuses, golden offices, and private jets we gave to the executives that screwed us, it isn’t hard to wonder if we are suicidal idiots. Shouldn’t we instead reward people for being socially conscious, making personal sacrifices that improve the world, and assure that people like Bill Gates who want to save the world don’t have to quit to do it?

Steve Jobs deserved his award and we deserved what happened to us with the financial collapse by focusing exclusively on short term bottom line performance. I’m wondering if we shouldn’t strive to deserve CEOs who are more focused on keeping us alive and safe then on making themselves rich. Maybe CEO of the decade should be someone who has not only taken care of their company but gone that extra yard to make the world a better place. I’m just saying…

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