A Year After Steve Jobs' Death: 8 Career Lessons

Steve Jobs memorial leadership focus

By Nancy Keene

I had a ringside seat during the ramp-up of the personal computer industry -- serving as public relations counsel to CEOs and entrepreneurs who were re-inventing the way we would do business in the modern world. A pretty heady experience this was for me, as a young, non-engineering female, not to mention an amazing learning laboratory.

A key barometer of industry clout was Esther Dyson's PC Forum, where the elite players would convene, preen and be seen.

A year after Steve Jobs' death, it's clear what an amazing figure he was, but even back, it was obvious to all that Steve Jobs was a different kind of cat. He had an aura of cool amid a sea of self-professed tech geeks. He was a marketing impresario, not a programmer. A liberal arts major, not an engineer or MBA. He even dressed differently. (Note blazer and bow tie, forerunner of the black turtleneck, in photo below, the year of Macintosh launch. You can see my back; I am at the left, talking to John Sculley, then CEO.)

Jobs didn't play nice with the other kids. When the industry moved toward standards and compatibility, Apple stood alone with a proprietary system. When the IBM "clones" (Compaq, Dell, HP, DEC et. al.) dominated the high-volume Enterprise sector, the Mac was beloved by students, graphic designers and creatives, a much smaller niche.

Today, Apple reigns as the world's market cap leader and most valuable brand -- with Greenlight Capital's David Einhorn predicting that the stock could eventually reach a valuation in excess of $1 trillion.

Competing in the ultimate leaderboard of brains and brilliance, how did Jobs accomplish this feat? Here are some clues:

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1. Focus.
Instead of letting product lines proliferate or permitting a thousand ideas to bloom, Steve Jobs insisted that Apple focus on just two or three priorities at a time, according to the best-selling biography by Walter Isaacson.

"There is no one better at turning off the noise that is going on around him," said Tim Cook, now CEO. "That allows him to focus on a few things and say no to many things. Few people are really good at that."

Jobs had a rigorous whittle-down process that started in a retreat with the top 100 people in the company. He would stand in front of a whiteboard and, according to the book, ask:

"What are the ten things we should be doing next?" People would fight to get their suggestions on the list. Jobs would write them down and then cross off the ones he decreed dumb. After much jockeying, the group would come up with a list of ten. Then Jobs would slash the bottom seven and announce, "We can only do three."

More:7 Unusual Career Paths In Science And Technology

2. Buck the trend.
There is a frenetic pace of activity inside companies today. Consider the ferocity of global competition and technologies that enable 24/7 access. Add this jaw-dropping statistic: Since 1989, more than 18 million jobs cuts have been announced, according to the outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray and Christmas.

For those remaining, the mandate is to do more with less. Leaders, managers and individual contributors are straddling unwieldy ranges of responsibilities with minimal support resources -- resulting in fragile bandwidths and decreases in workforce productivity, as reported by PricewaterhouseCoopers Saratoga Group.

At Apple, Jobs did the opposite. He did less with more, i.e., putting more effort into fewer initiatives.

"In order to do a good job of those things that we decide to do, we must eliminate all of the unimportant opportunities."

3. Go for a hit.
My former ad agency colleague Deborah Stapleton worked with Jobs for six years as outside investor relations counsel for Pixel. "He was focused on hits, much like a musical producer. He would always say, we've got to make this a hit." Thus he looked to build in a masterful formula of performance features and design elements that would deliver a high level of market enthusiasm and customer delight. Other companies focused on quantity and variety, pumping out volumes of products and line extensions.

According to the Isaacson book:

"...he would care, sometimes obsessively, about marketing and image and even the details of packaging. 'When you open the box of an iPhone or iPad, we want that tactile experience to set the tone for how you perceive the product.' "

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A Year After Steve Jobs' Death: 8 Career Lessons

You know those apps that help you find parking in San Francisco? Or the ones that tell you which bus to catch in New York City to get you where you're going? Those are often developed by civic hackers.

Cities don't necessarily want to hire these app developers or share resources, but they do want city hall connected with this generation of hackers, according to an article in The Atlantic.

The chief innovation officer gets to manage this little army of developers, encouraging citizen engagement and attacking problems that are actually kind of fun to solve. Adel Ebeid, Philadelphia's Chief Innovation Officer, one of two in the country, told The Atlantic he's part of a new wave of guinea pigs – one that's expected to become mainstream by 2015.

-- Find Innovation Officer jobs

Government jobs offer lots of perks. You can usually bet on a superb health insurance and retirement package, and for highly skilled professions, great pay.

And pretty much every federal program needs information technology, from Homeland Security to Medicare. By this fall, the largest federal agencies project they'll hire about 273,000 new workers for "mission-critical jobs," makingthedifference.org reports. We're talking about jobs like biological technicians at the Department of Agriculture and positions at the Department of Defense.

Wondering whether The Department of Defense actually has any openings? Sure does: more than 74,400 of them. It's highly likely they'll station you in the middle Atlantic region, as almost half of these positions are based there. The rest are scattered around the country.

Don't have the right skills yet to qualify? Scholarship for Service, funded through the National Science Foundation, will pay for your books, tuition, room and board at an institution where you can prepare for a federal tech career.

-- Find computer scientist jobs

You know how you hear all the time that journalism is dead? Yeah... It's not. It's just changing – both the way it's produced and how it's delivered. And nowhere is that more apparent than on the digital front.

Advance Publications last month announced it was cutting 600 jobs at The Times-Picayune and three Alabama newspapers to focus less on print and more on digital editions.

Media companies from small-town weekly newspapers to national outlets like CNN are hiring digital content producers. Depending on the outlet, this can mean editing video, writing, editing photos, creating audio slideshows, or in a lot of cases, all of the above.

Digital producers can be webmasters, graphic designers or multimedia gurus all rolled into one. It's a spectacular combination of both creative and technical work. Here's a nice summary of what digital producers do.

Where you'd work really runs the gamut here; your choices aren't limited to media companies. A recent search on Monster.com showed, for example, openings at Sony and World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc.

-- Find digital content producer jobs

The housing market crash drove thousands of realtors out of the industry. Only the hardiest (or maybe the ones with the biggest trust funds) stuck with it. But as the market recovers, there's room for more folks to move what's known in the real estate world as "inventory" – new houses, foreclosures and rentals.

But selling houses isn't what it used to be. The ones who do best in this new digital world can incorporate great photos and videos into their online listings, make the most of SEO so folks can find their properties faster and network online to find clients.

Companies like Real Geeks are helping agents do just that. And sites like Tech for Agents tell real estate pros how to use technology for everything from listing properties to prospecting big potential clients through social media and mobile apps. That site also contains a primer for real estate social networking.

And if you like being your own boss, more than half of real estate brokers and sales agents in 2010 were self-employed, so you're winning there, too.

-- Find real estate jobs

UX stands for "user experience," and it's something companies are focusing on more and more. How a person reacts to a website, how the content flows, how easy it is to browse and buy stuff online, how often a mobile app crashes – these are all examples of where user experience comes in. Case in point: The Washington Post this month moved researcher Laura Evans to a brand new position, Chief Experience Officer, where she'll focus on how customers interact with and use the Post.

User experience consultants work everywhere from schools to startups. Here's how Whitney Hess, an independent consultant specializing in user experience, sums it up: "Remember that website where you got totally lost and frustrated and gave up before you got anything done? That was a bad user experience that was poorly considered by the company who made it, and it's my mission in life to erase those from the planet." If you're still unsure what they do, Mashable lays out 10 common misconceptions about user experience design.

-- Find user experience designer jobs


4. Be curious.
Jobs was constantly collecting input from diverse sources, Stapleton reports. "I didn't see him dismiss an idea out of hand," she says. "He listened, evaluated and decided." He explored outside the business/technology box -- with an appreciation for music, creativity and the visual arts. He was influenced by the zen of simplicity.

5. Dump the dogs.
The Newton was Apple's early design for a tablet-sized personal digital assistant. It was ten years in the making, but did not deliver on the goal to re-invent personal computing. When Jobs gained control of the company a second time, he was obsessed with slashing it:

"Shut it down, write it off, get rid of it. It doesn't matter what it costs. People will cheer you if you got rid of it. "

6. Pursue the white space.
By clearing the decks, Jobs could target unoccupied territory that offered high opportunity. Apple was successful in crossing industry lines to penetrate new sectors and create new categories -- a sneak attack on those facing inward in the silos.

The iPod upended the music industry. The iPhone stole business away from mobile, cameras and fired up a whole new market for apps. The iPad became the Big Daddy of gamechangers: eReader. Show-and-tell device. Near laptop functionality. Fit-in-your-purse convenience. It hooked tens of millions of fervent new users into the Apple world. And here's the brilliance of Job's compatibility conundrum: Kludgy syncs with BlackBerries and PCs drove additional migration to iPhone and Mac.

7. Too much can miss the mark.

The writer Malcolm Gladwell, who probed secrets of success in the best-selling book Outliers, suggested in a talk to the Association of American Publishers that many professions need essentially editorial skills. "...We didn't have too little information [before 9/11], we had too much. We needed an editor...to take what mattered and throw out what didn't matter. Fifty years ago, all you needed was a spy plane. Today you need something much more sophisticated--you need an editor."

In another real-world example, Gladwell painted Steve Jobs' great skill as editing down to what was most important. Gladwell said "an expert's job is to place limits and impose standards" and "it's the editor who is the king."

8. Curator of not-invented-yet.
Jobs could see how components of design and innovation could be combined and calibrated to be presented optimally in products that no one ever imagined. He had the genius of creating demand for something you didn't know you wanted -- at a premium price, to boot.

Individually, these strategies are not earth-shattering, but combined, they are transformational. What would work for you?

Nancy Keene is founder of The Perfect Fit leadership consultancy and developer of the Changeometer ™, a framework for strategic decision making based on focus and synergy. www.keeneperfectfit.com

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