Steve Jobs, ‘product guys’ and ‘sales guys,’ and your payroll

I have a complicated relationship with thick biographies. Intellectually, I know I should sit there and wade my way through the thick prose devoted to men and women of great consequence. In a way, it’s like broccoli: “Go on, eat it – it’ll be good for you, and what do you mean, ‘I’m not hungry’?”  Quick fiction is so much more, well … fun. I didn’t have to fight that internal dialogue when I read Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs. I’ve been an Apple consumer for years: My folks bought an Apple II-E in the early ’80s and it stuck with us through thick and thin for the next 15 years. I’m writing this column on a MacBook. Apple fandom, however, is no key to appreciating Isaacson’s masterful treatment of Steve Jobs. Jobs, as you almost certainly know, was a brilliant, complicated, interesting, and often horrifying figure. His polymath and autodidactic approach to life guarantees that just about anyone can take a nugget of something from his biography, and personnel managers are no different. The easy personnel lessons from Jobs are not to imitate his frankly tyrannical approach toward his employees, partners, confidantes, and friends. Anyone with the slightest familiarity of Jobs knows of his almost endless capacity for unkindness, so I’m going in a different direction here. My takeaway for personnel managers is to take care and ensure that your compensation practices square with your company culture and the company’s long-term goals. Isaacson wisely allowed Jobs the last word in his own biography, and that epilogue included the following passage that I circled on the first read and seem to return to over and over.

I have my own theory about why decline happens at companies…. The company does a great job, innovates and becomes a monopoly or close to it in some field, and then the quality of the product becomes less important. The company starts valuing the great salesmen, because they’re the ones who can move the needle on revenues, not the product engineers and designers. So the salespeople end up running the company…. When the sales guys run the company, the product guys don’t matter so much, and a lot of them just turn off.

What does this mean for you? A lot. It’s no secret compensation is a top cause, if not the top cause, for resentment in any organization. Are you giving lip service to product development while your compensation system rewards those involved in moving existing products? If so, your company may be trying to sail the ship in a different direction while dragging the anchor along the seabed; in other words, your stated goals and incentives are out of whack. I can keep going and going with examples of my own, but let’s open up the comments for discussion of compensation systems that don’t reward what the company says it values. Just don’t forget that as you do long-range strategic planning, your people need a reason to follow your lead – and much more often that not, compensation has to be designed to meet those goals. So tell us:  When have you seen this done well, and when have you seen it botched?