There’s a great scene at the end of Bridge on the River Kwai when Alec Guinness’ character assess his career in the British Army and admits it’s been a disappointment. Ex-Apple CEO John Sculley takes a similar look at his stint at the top of Apple, and says the company made a big mistake when it hired him as CEO. It’s the most surprisingly frank admission I’ve ever heard anyone make about their career.
Here’s what he said:
Looking back, it was a big mistake that I was ever hired as CEO. I was not the first choice that Steve wanted to be the CEO. He was the first choice, but the board wasn’t prepared to make him CEO when he was 25, 26 years old.
They exhausted all of the obvious high-tech candidates to be CEO… Ultimately, David Rockefeller, who was a shareholder in Apple, said let’s try a different industry and let’s go to the top head hunter in the United States who isn’t in high tech: Jerry Roach.
They went and recruited me. I came in not knowing anything about computers. The idea was that Steve and I were going to work as partners. He would be the technical person and I would be the marketing person.
The reason why I said it was a mistake to have hired me as CEO was Steve always wanted to be CEO. It would have been much more honest if the board had said, “Let’s figure out a way for him to be CEO. You could focus on the stuff that you bring and he focuses on the stuff he brings.”
Remember, he was the chairman of the board, the largest shareholder and he ran the Macintosh division, so he was above me and below me. It was a little bit of a façade and my guess is that we never would have had the breakup if the board had done a better job of thinking through not just how do we get a CEO to come and join the company that Steve will approve of, but how do we make sure that we create a situation where this thing is going to be successful over time?
My sense is that when Steve left (in 1986, after the board rejected his bid to replace Sculley as CEO) I still didn’t know very much about computers.
My decision was first to fix the company, but I didn’t know how to fix companies and to get it back to be successful again.
All the stuff we did then were all his ideas. I understood his methodology. We never changed it. So we didn’t license the products. We focused on industrial design. We actually built up our own in-house design organization, which they have to this day. We developed the PowerBook… We developed QuickTime. All these things were built around Steve’s philosophy… It was all about sales and marketing and the evolution of the products.
All the design ideas were clearly Steve’s. The one who should really be given credit for all that stuff while I was there is really Steve.