Richard Branson on Leadership Lessons from the Unflappable Steve Jobs

Richard Branson on Leadership Lessons from the Unflappable Steve Jobs
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Earlier this year, I experienced one of those fortunate coincidences that makes life interesting. Around the same time that I was starting to look forward to the release of Virgin Produced's new film, "Jobs," which depicts the Apple founder Steve Jobs' life as an entrepreneur, I had dinner at my good friends Jerry and Gina Murdock's home in Aspen, Colo., with a wonderful group of entrepreneurs including Nest's Tony Fadell, Mike McCue of Flipboard and Dave Morin of Path, along with the CEO of Twitter, Dick Costolo. Tony and Dave both worked at Apple earlier in their careers, so of course I asked to hear more anecdotes about Steve, the entrepreneur I most admire.

Tony was the man behind Apple's revolutionary iPod. Early in his career at Apple, Tony approached Steve Jobs with the initial concept, and then worked on building and developing 18 generations of iPods and three generations of iPhones.

Tony talked quite a bit about Steve's leadership style and how it affected the company. It's well known that Steve pushed his employees to achieve stunning results, demanding perfection, and that he was quick to criticize when things didn't go right. And his people met that challenge: Things went very well with the iPod, which transformed the music industry.

Tony felt that no matter how good a product was, Steve never thought it was perfect. Part of this drive to perfection meant that Steve did not back down: You couldn't win an argument with him unless you could back it up with cold, hard facts. And Steve won almost all arguments based on opinion. If Tony and his team needed to win an opinion-based argument, the team would plot together before the meeting with Steve, wait until the critical moment during that meeting, quietly utter the word "now!" and then all lean forward at the same time and push against his wishes.

The belief that you can always do better is something that sets great entrepreneurs apart, and helps drive them toward future successes. Creators are never fully satisfied. They can always do better.

Steve's vision and commitment to it resulted in the iPod teams' developing a huge number of products and versions before they felt they had attained their goal and went ahead with a launch. This is a long and lonely process at any company -- as Dave said, "Nobody could remember when we couldn't sell iPods and we gave every student at Duke University one to get it going. It can take a long time to build a company."

When we got to the topic of what projects we are working on now, Tony of course discussed his wonderful new company, Nest, which has developed a thermostat that learns people's schedules, reducing their homes' carbon outputs and energy bills by up to 20 percent. As you would expect, he and his team are working on a lot of other interesting products, too.

A company's culture shapes everything from how its products look to how customer service staff answers the phone, so every company's culture should be a little different and fit its particular circumstances. At Nest, Tony is creating one that's very different and less dictatorial than Apple's. He helps everyone in the group to understand their vital role in its successes and to work toward those goals.

On the other hand, Nest does share Apple's focus on brilliant design. Tony remarked that just like making practical, excellent products, this is essential for any company to be competitive: "You must look cool and do cool." This gives customers both rational and emotional reasons to invest in a brand. As Tony said: "Technology should be about more than newest, loudest, prettiest. It should make a difference."

And Dave commented that the impetus for great design needs to come from the top. Everyone at a company should care how a product looks, feels and works - not just the guys with the word "design" in their job titles. Companies need CEOs with good design taste, as much as they need accountants who are great with numbers.

As dinner came to a close, everyone talked about what advice we could take from our experiences that would be useful for new entrepreneurs. We agreed that it should be: Just start. Brooding over one idea or another for four or five years is what most people do. Just start. You will learn so many lessons by doing.

Start. Trust the process, trust your idea and trust your team.

We had a terrific conversation during our meal. It would have been great if Steve was still here so he could have joined us.

Amplifications: An earlier version of this column did not specify that the dinner with entrepreneurs took place at the Aspen, Colo., home of Jerry and Gina Murdock. 

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