What I Learned Working for Steve Jobs

UPDATED: October 8, 2015
PUBLISHED: April 22, 2015

The first time I met Steve Jobs, it was at his house for my first interview at Pixar, something I never thought would happen, not even in my wildest dreams. During our conversation, we talked about my experience and how it could apply to a role he was looking to fill—a liaison between Disney (where I worked for eight years) and the producers at Pixar Animation Studios.

After we talked about what the role would entail, I had one of the most surreal moments of my entire life: I said no to Steve Jobs. I wanted to work for Steve more than words could express, but I didn’t think putting someone between the producers and the distributors would ever work.

Steve ended up offering me a job running new business and marketing. I gave myself an Austin Powers-inspired title, “International Man of Marketing,” and dug into Pixar like a puppy in a playground. Although I thought I had successfully said no to that initial job offer, it became clear with every working day that my new role was turning into the one I’d rejected. What I didn’t know then is that Steve Jobs probably never really heard my no.

I began a professional descent that finally ended in a fateful meeting between Steve and me—a meeting that people who have worked for Steve know that most walk out of there having quit if they weren’t already fired.

I found it nearly impossible to stand up to his relentless and intimidating intellect. I respected Steve so much—basically worshiped the ground he worked on—so I figured my only move I had was to go with dignity. I did the honorable thing and resigned. That was one of the saddest days of my life.

I don’t regret any of the time I spent working for Steve—how could I? It was a privilege to be with him, even for a short and difficult time. Nearly two decades later, as the CEO of digital marketing firm Magnetic, I’m still learning things from my time working for him. Here are three:

1. Be clear and transparent.

While Steve was arguably the greatest marketer of our generation, sharing innovation with inspirational words to the masses, he wasn’t the best communicator with individuals.

Steve didn’t set defined expectations for me or other employees. He simply knew what he wanted. He wasn’t great at telling you what that was, but he knew it when he saw it, which was a major hurdle for any employee, at any level, to overcome.

Watching him operate made me recognize the importance of clarity and transparency with my team, and how imperative it is to set expectations. The more transparent I am about where we want to take the company, the clearer my team is about how to get there.

2. Build relationships at work.

The time we spend at work is also the time we spend with our work colleagues. One can’t exist without the other, so building relationships at work is the key to being successful—no matter rank or role. I didn’t do this well at Pixar—I focused on what Steve wanted at the expense of relationships with everyone else at the company.

When you make any decision that will affect the company, ensure that you help paint the picture and discuss with your team why they should want to be on board. If not, you could alienate your co-workers in the process and make progress very difficult.

3. Listen carefully when others speak.

Steve told me what he wanted when we first met, and I told him I didn’t want to do it. But when I think carefully about how everything played out, the role he first suggested was never very different from what I agreed to do. My excuse for not sticking to my guns is that Steve was one of the most persuasive people on the planet—but that’s not good enough. I should never have taken the job.

This lesson has led me to spend crazy amounts of time trying to figure out what people really want. I rarely try to change someone’s goals or opinions. No matter how driven, smart or successful your employee, if the person is not a good fit then you should end the relationship as quickly and as respectfully as possible.

When I walked away from Pixar, Steve said to me: “Life is long, and I’m sure our paths will cross again.” Sure enough, that was not the last time I talked to Steve Jobs.

One of the many things that makes Steve Jobs so inspirational is that he took his walk in the wilderness. He suffered setbacks, but he learned from them, matured and returned to even greater victories. The sweetness of the comeback is much richer and multifaceted than the first win. For this and many other reasons, Steve will always be a hero of mine.

Steve Jobs birthed the personal computer, was banished from his empire and then saved it from ruin. Along the way, he changed the way we work, play and communicate. Read his story, originally published in the June 2010 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

James Green is the CEO of digital marketing technology company Magnetic.