Earlier this year Walter Isaacson, the CEO of the Aspen Institute,published Steve Jobs, a bookthat has become the definitive history of one of America’s most admired business executives. The book became an immediate best seller. However, interestingly enough, based upon reviews, blogs, and columns about the book, it quickly became clear that few readers had captured the correct message of the book. In this social media focused world, more readers found value in criticizing the book (not Steve Jobs) than in learning from it.
Enter, The Harvard Business Review (HBR). The HBR, recognizing that Mr. Jobs was obviously going to make his mark on American business history, decided that some clarity was appropriate. Therefore, they requested that Mr. Isaacson draft an article that specifically set forth the exact lessons that the American culture could learn from Mr. Jobs. The result was excellent and every American business executive and leader should spend 30 minutes studying the wisdom offered through the article.
The idea behind this column came together after one such review, when that wisdom was applied to the current real estate industry. Despite the fact that Jobs fought his battles in an industry that some might think could not be more different than real estate, the fact is that many of the challenges were exactly the same. The relevance of Steve Jobs story becomes even greater when one realizes that much of his success occurred in a business environment not that much different than the one that real estate brokers find themselves in today.
A couple of cautionary comments are in order. The purpose of this article is not to suggest that Steve Jobs was the world’s greatest executive, nor that everything he did was great, nor that everyone should strive to be a Steve Jobs.
The message here is to suggest that (A) Steve Jobs was a very successful man who built what has almost universally become recognized as a “great” as opposed to “good” company in a world very similar to today’s business environment, (B) that real estate brokers are or should be seeking out business strategies that can succeed in the new market environment that is even now creating a new real estate marketplace, and that (C) while some elements of the Jobs’ “wisdom” may represent new ideas and concepts, others may simply reflect the famous “basics” that everyone wants to return to. In the case of the latter, reading about them may do nothing other than validate the fact that some good practices never change. It is a “win-win” either way.
Mr. Isaacson’s article raises 15 specific lessons to be learned. This discussion suggests that six might have an immediate application to contemporary real estate brokerages.
When Jobs returned to Apple, it was offering over 20 distinct products. When his revolution was completed it was offering four. Industries from food service to airlines to automobiles have discovered that learning to do just a few things really well enhances overall business success across the board. A compelling argument can be made that many of today’s top brokerages are attempting to do way to many things and as a result aren’t really distinguishing themselves regarding any specific task. The prioritization of tasks is the critical first step here. Be it profitability, the consumer experience or universal accountability, pick something and become famous for it.
Complexity will go down in history as one of the legacies of the boomer generation. Much of this phenomenon was driven by the fact that the Boomers were the world’s first nearly universally college educated generation. From that experience came an obsessive need for validation by making everything as complicated as possible. The folly of that approach is even now obvious given the fact that one of the first things that technology has undertaken to do is to simplify formally complex processes through software applications such as WebMD, Legal Zoom, Quicken and TurboTax. Simplicity will go down in history as one of the things that the modern consumer finally won in their efforts to dismantle the convoluted world of the “me” centered Boomer business world. Nowhere is this complexity/simplicity conflict more clearly demonstrated than in the real estate industry’s current rejection of transaction management. The traditional industry clings to the complication and non-transparency of its “service provider centric” legacy as if life itself was at stake.
3. Take Responsibility End to End
The lives of Steve Jobs and Harry Truman had a number of things in common but one of the most glaring was their allegiance to the concept that the “buck stops here!” In a world that had an excuse for every failure and a scapegoat for every misstep Jobs chose to adopt a classic position that excuses are no substitute for performance. A review of the current real estate industry literature discloses that one of its most common themes is the need for brokerages to take control of their businesses. The demographic model inspired by the post 1975 rise of provider centrism simply didn’t work. Someone has to be in charge.
4. When Behind Leapfrog
One of the most difficult aspects of today’s business world is understanding the competitive environment. The traditional wisdom demanded that executives and business leaders focus on the competition within their industry. But in Steve Jobs’ world and, increasingly in American business, competition comes from entities outside an industry and from changing consumer expectations and demands. The i-Pad isn’t a response to competitive pressures; it is a realization of what consumers ended up wanting and demanding. The entire line of Apple products represents what Jobs thought would fit the consumer’s emerging lifestyle. Whatever creativity or innovation is coming out of the real estate industry today seems to be more focused on what the competitors are doing rather than what consumer might want. It isn’t clear that history will award the founders of Zillow “Jobs status” but it is clear that this is their focus and the league they are playing in.
5. Don’t Be a Slave to Focus Groups
Henry Ford beat Jobs to the punch on this one when he said, “if I would have ask American’s what they wanted they would have said a faster horse.” Part of Jobs’ ability to take responsibility for his actions was his willingness to the take responsibility for what direction Apple products should take. The real estate industry is on notice that its traditional experience is no longer resonating with today’s consumer. Perhaps its journey to its new destination might be easier if consumers rather than providers populated the focus group.
6. Tolerate Only “A” Players
Jobs was relentless in his goal of having the Apple team be the “best of the best.” More than anything else he has been criticized for being way too demanding and judgmental of his players. He never failed to put mission and product before popularity and peace. Today’s real estate brokers might consider following this lead. Loyalty is a fine thing but only when it is directed to real objectives and goals like profit and accountability. Being popular with one’s provider panel and management team is no excuse for tolerating “B” players. It all goes back to Jim Collins’ 2001 admonition in From Good to Great, “get the right people on the bus.”
Take a few moments to track down the April edition of the Harvard Business Review. It will be well worth your time.