Branding Your Career Like Apple

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Lessons from Steve Jobs’ Former Boss

Apple founder Steve Jobs and former Apple CEO John Sculley

Recently Leander Kahney of interviewed former Apple CEO John Sculley on his ten years’ experience working with Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. Link to the article:

We can summarize this interview and distill seven learning points to help us develop a more successful and innovative professional brand:

1. Be different – begin with the end in mind

“Why join the navy if you can be a pirate?” – Steve Jobs

Part of what Sculley describes as the “Steve Jobs methodology” is to “start with the user’s experience.” While competitors focus on product development, Jobs focuses first on customer experience. The result, of course, is a line of products that are user friendly, popular, and worth paying more for.

We can relate this to career branding by thinking about how you want your primary professional audience (those who have the power to pay and /or promote you) to experience your brand. Consider the following:

A. Putting yourself in your supervisor or customers’ shoes; what must they experience from you in order to entrust you with greater, promotable responsibilities? To become loyal to your brand and make referrals?
B. What would they be willing to pay you more for? Offer you greater opportunities for? How can you satisfy their needs?
C. How can you improve their user experience of your professional service so that, because of you, their time is easier, better, and more enjoyable? What can you offer so that they’re glad they have you around, and prefer not to do without you?

2. Be a minimalist – follow what you truly want to be

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” – Steve Jobs

Scully made a point of emphasizing the importance of being selective in what you do. It’s important to say “no” many times to avoid going in the wrong direction, or taking too much on your plate.

There’s a big difference between being busy and being productive. Some busy people lack selectivity, can’t say “no”, and attract many thankless tasks that go unappreciated. Productive people who are brand-savvy know what their strengths and niches are, and focus primarily on tasks that will help them earn higher recognition and pay.

“Quality is more important than quantity. One home run is much better than two doubles.” – Steve Jobs

Granted, we can’t always choose what we do, and with every job there’s a certain amount of obligatory busywork. The key, therefore, is to reduce your discretionary busy work. Consider the following:

A. How much of your current work is busy work, and how much is meaningful work? If more than 50% of your professional time (some managers and executives would draw the line at 20%) is devoted to busy work, it’s time to reprioritize.
B. Make a list of all the busy work that you do as part of your job – tasks that are time consuming, thankless, and add nothing to your career success.
C. What can you do to reduce, simplify, or delegate as much of your busy work as possible, so that you can concentrate on brand-building endeavors?

For related article on successful time management, visit

3. Be selective – what you don’t do brands you as much as what you do

“I’m as proud of what we don’t do as I am of what we do.” – Steve Jobs

Some professionals never volunteer to be note-takers at meetings. Some refuse to answer non-essential work e-mails. Some do not attend unproductive meetings. Certain top of the line products and services rarely offer discounts. While you may agree or disagree with these strategies, branding-savvy professionals are often highly conscious of projecting what their brand is not about. Consider the following, arguable points:

A. It’s more important to be respected than to be liked. There’s truth to the saying “nice guys finish last”. You want people to take you seriously, and not see you as a softy.
B. It’s more important to set limits and standards than to cheapen your brand. Ways of cheapening one’s brand can range from allowing others to waste your time, to making a major concession without strategic payoff. Once your professional brand is cheapened, it is hard to win back the respect.
C. It’s more important to be a producer than a compliant team player. Being an amenable team player is suitable in some situations. However, being a strong producer (with excellent people skills) will ultimately earn you your highest recognitions and promotions. Even when you’re part of a team, be sure what you do as a member will bring you due recognition, instead of allowing someone else to shine at your expense. Those who are consistently overshadowed in groups are only contributing to their colleagues’ success.

4. Be irreplaceable – brand yourself with a hard-to-substitute niche

“A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” – Steve Jobs

Many years ago in business school, one of my professors told me the following two keys to success in any organization:

A. Get your foot in the door.
B. Do something to make yourself irreplaceable.

Of course, what makes you irreplaceable becomes part of your brand. In the context of Job’s philosophy, we can also include:

C. Identify an unmet need, and be the only one who’s qualified to fill it.
D. Better yet, invent a need, and be the only one who’s qualified to fill it.

Your ability to exclusively fill a need can be based on one or more of the following factors:

A. Proprietary creativity (good ideas you can put your signature on).
B. High level specialization (few others possess your know-how).
C. Cross-occupational expertise (few others have your combination of skills and experience).
D. Personal charisma (your personality is an asset and becomes a brand).

Steve Jobs embodies all four of these qualities. He’s innovative, specialized, savvy with design, function, and user experience, and has the personality of a pop-culture icon. Possessing one or more of these qualities can place your brand above the norm.

For related article on being irreplaceable and creating a niche, click

5. Be excellent – develop high-end standard for your brand

“Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.” – Steve Jobs

Successful branding requires a standard of excellence in your niche endeavors, in both substance and style. Substance is your ability to deliver results. Style is your ability to do so impressively, in the way you present not only your product or service, but YOURSELF. The final lesson in this executive summary (“The power of perception”) contains many ideas on shaping professional style. Combined, excellence in substance and style allows you to exceed expectations, and makes you the “go to person” in your brand of expertise.

6. Be reinventive – reduce the risk of professional complacency and stagnation

“Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” – Steve Jobs

Successful career branding requires periodic re-assessment of one’s niche in relation to internal strengths and weaknesses, as well as external opportunities and threats (SWOT analysis). To enjoy career longevity, it’s imperative to stay ahead of the game, and reinvent one’s brand when necessary. Scully made the salient observation that there’s great risk in not changing, using the example of how Sony should have had an iPod, but missed the boat.

Whatever your professional brand is currently, ask the following questions:

A. Is there anyone who can do my job better than I can?
B. Is there anyone who can do my job cheaper than I can?
C. What am I unwilling to admit that could hurt my career?
D. What are potential areas of challenge to my brand a year from now? Three years from now?
E. How can I reinvent my brand to stay ahead of the game?

7. Recognize the power of perception, and define your brand accordingly

“Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want a chance to change the world?” – Steve Jobs, the line he used to lure John Sculley as Apple’s CEO

Perception can be defined as our mental constructs of reality. People’s perception of you is often highly subjective, and can be influenced by the context and focus you introduce. In professional branding, creating a favorable perception is half the winning battle.

The following factors go a long way in shaping others’ perception of you:
A. Your professional appearance. Remember that part of Apple’s success is the design of its products. Just as how you make a first impression can make or break an interview, how you’re attired professionally can make or break your upward mobility. The two rules of thumb when it comes to appearance at work are to dress slightly better than your colleagues, and dress for the job you want.
B. Your ability to communicate effectively with people. This is a crucial topic that’s beyond the scope of this summary. To see a comprehensive list of resources on how to become a more effective communicator, visit my website
C. Your ability to speak well in public. Charisma can be learned, and becoming a good public speaker is one way to have it.
D. Your ability to write well.
E. The tasks and projects you take on vs. the ones you decline. As much as possible, focus on activities that help make you shine, rather than just doing busy work. As Jobs said, a home run is better than two doubles. Take on projects that allow you to hit home runs.
F. The extent and strength of your network and collegial relations.
G. The visibility of the results you produce. Take credit for your accomplishments. Don’t be shy about letting others know what you’ve achieved in an appropriate way.

In conclusion, there’s only one YOU. I believe we’re each here to do something unique and special with our lives. What are your gifts, and how can you fully actualize them in your brand?

“.. almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” – Steve Jobs


Preston Ni is a professor of communication studies, Fortune 500 trainer, executive coach, and organizational change consultant. Write to Preston at, and access free resources at

© 2011 by Preston C. Ni. All rights reserved worldwide.

About the Author

Preston Ni is a professor of communication studies, Fortune 500 trainer, executive coach, and organizational change consultant. Write to Preston at, and access free resources at