What I Learned From Ex-Apple CEO John Sculley: You Have To Keep Moving

Having the right executives and the right mentors are critical for the tech industry.

I had a nice chat today with John Sculley, who has been doing a lot of rather interesting things since he left Apple in the 90s. I’d been asked to read his new book "Moonshot!", and I was interested not only in some of his foundational thinking but also in how he’d been able to get his book out so quickly in hard cover given that the traditional publishing process can take up to three years. For a tech-focused book, that generally would mean the book would be up to two years out of date when it was first published. And even at six months there already was at least one point in the book that was out of date.

John’s book talks about how to create transformative products that can revolutionize industries and the derivative effect of both of these products and major events. Here are some other things he covers:

Executive Team Building

I’m not talking about events where folks get together and play silly games—I’m talking about how you effectively staff a company. In his book, John talks about just how important it is to have the proper skillset at the top of a company. One of the most frustrating things for me over the years is to be called in to address a firm’s inability to execute only to find that the primary reason the problem exists is that the folks at the top don’t have the proper skills to do the job and/or refuse to get along with each other.

In one case, two of the executives actually got into a physical fight. It often makes me wonder, in these instances, what boards actually think their job is. If you don’t have the right skills at the top of a company, the firm is dysfunctional. Yet I’ve seen executive after executive treat critical jobs like CMO, HR Director and even CFO as if anyone could do the job, and it rarely ends well.

The Importance of the Right Mentor

Young companies often bring in experienced executives as mentors and either put them on their boards or make them a board resource. The mentor needs to be the right mentor though.

For instance, I observed Jack Welch, ex-CEO of GE, come in to a number of tech companies and cause some problems because what he did as a turnaround executive was harmful to firms that didn’t need to be turned around. He had experience and was very convincing—he just didn’t have the experience these folks needed. As a result, some of these firms are painfully purging themselves of concepts like “Forced Ranking” at the moment.

John points out that a mentor needs to understand the industry well enough so that his or her advice is both timely and relevant. And this means mentors need to understand the industry as it is, not as it was in the past (which is a whole different problem with older mentors). This also suggests a visible passion for the industry, enough so the mentor has remained current. Sculley himself is a good example of this as he has a passion for tech and, like a lot of folks advancing in age, a passion for healthcare. These passions led to his efforts with interesting properties like PeopleTicker and RxAdvance. The first tracks the wages of temporary workers and the charges from temp agencies at a national scale, and the second addresses the excessive cost of health care.

Looking to Root Causes

There are few books that I’ve read that got me thinking as differently about the world around me as “Moonshot!” and John Sculley did. For instance, I can now see that the increased production of oil by the US which helped crater oil prices likely had more adverse impact on ISIS and Iran than anything else we’d done and that blocking further drilling would likely do more to help them as well.

While I’ve always tried to look behind a change to the cause, the book both validated the need to do this and crystallized a far more rigorous approach. If you get a chance, pick up the book. I doubt you’ll be disappointed. My thanks to John Sculley both for sending me the book and for chatting with me this morning. At least from my standpoint, it was time very well spent.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.






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