The Biggest Lesson Recruiters Can Learn From Steve Jobs

October 1, 2015

steve jobs recruiting

It’s impossible to avoid the legacy of Steve Jobs.

Apple is the most valuable company in the world. The four industries he touched – music, movies, computers and phones – he changed forever. He’s been the subject of countless articles, dozens of documentaries and now two feature films.

So what was secret? What was the thing he did that made all his success possible?

“I consider the most important job of someone like myself recruiting,” Jobs said in the documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine. In the documentary, it detailed how Jobs would target people he was particularly inspired by, and then relentlessly pursue them.

How would be ultimately close those great people? He sold a vision. He sold Apple as a place of few rules and ultimate possibilities, to which any other company paled in comparison.

“Most places in life are continuing telling you that your dreams aren’t possible or practical,” Jobs said in the documentary, reflecting on his recruiting pitch. “You don’t want to hear that when you’re under 30. What you want to do is race after it.”

A look at some of Jobs direct recruiting pitches

In 1982, Jobs wanted to recruit John Sculley – then, the CEO of PepsiCo – to Apple. His pitch was blunt.

“Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life?” Jobs reportedly asked Sculley. “Or do you want to change the world?”

That same year, he wanted to recruit Bob Belleville, who worked at Xerox, to be the head of engineering at Apple. Again, his pitch was blunt.

“I hear you are a good guy,” Jobs reportedly told Belleville. “But everything you’ve done so far is crap. Come work for me.”

He didn’t mean that the quality of Belleville’s work was crap. Instead, he meant that everything Belleville had done in his career to that point had been useless, and only at Apple could he do meaningful work.

That was Jobs’ recruiting technique: trash the candidate’s current company, while proclaiming that all the important work happened at Apple. That style was on display in Jobs most famous commercial as well, where he crushed his main competitor – IBM – while painting his company as liberating and life changing:

Analyzing the effectiveness of Jobs’ technique

It’s hard to argue with Jobs’ results. Yes, he obviously was an amazing visionary and peerless marketer.

But he couldn’t have built the iPhone, the MacBook or Toy Story without recruiting some of the world’s best talent to make it happen. Perhaps the best example of his recruiting prowess is the work he did recruiting his successor, Tim Cook, who has established himself as a strong CEO with a track record of skyrocketing growth.

That said, there’s a well-publicized underbelly to Jobs relationship with talent as well. He was known for being incredibly demanding on his workers and was the subject of an incriminating anti-poaching investigation.

So how did he do it? How did he get people to work so hard and so effectively for him, despite being so hard to work for?

That vision he sold was so vivid, his workers lived with all the rest to chase that dream. No better example of that is a quote by Michael Murray, a former software engineer at Apple, who was asked in the documentary why he worked so hard for Jobs.

“I’m certainly not doing it for Steve Jobs,” Murray said. “I’m doing it for something that I think is a much greater good than that.”

The biggest lesson recruiters can learn from Jobs

Jobs’ companies didn’t cure AIDs. He didn’t bring about world peace. He didn’t find a limitless supply of clean energy.

He made phones. And computers. And movies. 

And yet, somehow, he managed to sell that as changing the world to his candidates. As a place where truly meaningful work happened, where they could “think different.”

“Apple is a business,” former Apple Software Engineer Andy Gringon said in the documentary. “And we’ve somehow attached this emotion to a business that is just there to make money for its shareholders. That’s all it is, nothing more. Creating that association is probably Steve’s greatest accomplishments.”

The point is you, as a recruiter, can sell that vision too (although you can skip the part about trashing the competition). No matter what industry you recruit for, what your company does, don’t make your recruiting pitch about a product or a task or a matching 401k plan and stock options.

Make it about doing something amazing. Make it about an opportunity to do something meaningful, to make some truly positive change in the world.

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