John Sculley is a man who knows the power of a team. He headed Apple for ten years of its meteoric rise, mentoring Steve Jobs and helping to usher in an era of high tech consumer innovation. In his eyes, the whole organization is just as important as the superstars.

Here are some steps to emulate one of the most sought-after mentors in the startup world:

Know what you're looking for.

"It's always about the people," Sculley told me at the recent Web Summit held in Dublin. "You can have super ideas and mediocre people and you won't succeed...I always spend the most time trying to find the very best people."

This hardly comes as a surprise, as much of his advice revolves around positive interactions with these people. Attitude, enthusiasm, and vision count for more than technical expertise, and you need to find those who are chomping at the bit to do something great for the company. It doesn't matter if they're the CFO or the security guard; get them on board.

Focus on what you're good at.

But before Sculley can even start to look for people, he needs to find opportunities to disrupt industries that he's particularly knowledgeable in. "I don't go into any business where I don't have personally deep domain expertise or I can surround myself with very smart people who do".

The ability to find good people provides Sculley the means the break into industries with high barriers to entry and a need for technical knowledge. For instance, most startups stay clear of healthcare because it is so complex. But if Sculley doesn't know what he needs to know, he's networked in, and can find the right contacts to help him.

Know your role.

Of course, this means delegating certain responsibilities, and trusting the people you chose as experts. "I'm not 35 years old, so I don't run these companies," Sculley says. He maintains, perhaps modestly, that he can't possibly have as many good ideas as people in their 30s will; rather, "I'm always there as the second set of trusted eyes. Helping be a rainmaker, open the doors, bring in the capital, help negotiate the deals, and, if I'm good at any one thing, I'm a really good explainer."

"There's no way I could possibly work across a number of companies if I was the CEO of those companies. The largest amount of time a CEO spends is with the people-related issues. I don't do that. I don't manage the businesses. There are people that do that better than I do."

Sculley makes it absolutely clear that "a mentor is not a decider. [The CEOs] are the decision-makers. But I'm going to challenge them about when they have to make decisions. They can't postpone them. There's always an urgency, and they have to feel that urgency. But I don't make the decisions for them. I don't give them a hard time if they make a mistake or a wrong decision."

Who says mentors need to be hands-off?

But that isn't to say that Sculley isn't extremely involved. "If you want someone just to be a passive investor, I'm not that person," says Sculley. He's often working from 4:30 a.m., in touch with the CEOs he works with several times a day. He doesn't micromanage them, but is always in their face in terms of anything that has to do with customer or design. Sculley puts a particular emphasis on anything that requires urgency and getting the business processes in place that can help his companies scale.

He's constantly challenging his CEOs to upgrade their organizations' talent, and asking where he can help. "I'm often the explainer, he says. "I'm the one who will go out and talk to the CEOs, CIOs and CMOs of big corporations to explain why we're the best company in the world that they ought to work with."

Mentees don't have to be perfect.

Besides, these CEOs should be able to handle setbacks. In fact, John prefers to work with entrepreneurs who have been through the experience of making mistakes and to have their backs up against the wall. "It's a great training ground," he explains. If they can face that kind of pressure and keep their cool, it is a huge indicator of competency and control.

This trust has a twofold effect: it gives CEOs the confidence to make decisions, and it also breeds respect on both sides. In John's eyes, "there's no separation between my friends, personally, and my business associates. There's a very high level of comfort."

Embrace mentoring as a legacy.

When it finally comes around to the topic of his own role, John has a very firm vision of what he wants to bring to the table, and how he wants to be thought of.

"I don't believe in long-term legacies," says Sculley. "I think it's completely irrelevant."

When he looks at the generation of people who were CEOs when he was a CEO, Sculley maintains that there are few he can remember particularly well. Steve Jobs is probably one of the few exceptions to that rule.

"A couple decades later, nobody's going to remember who you were. So get over it." Rather, Sculley thinks, "'how can I pass on something that is transferable to living people who are going to follow me and come after me?' What's the difference if anyone remembers me?"

A society grows great when men plant trees in whose shade they know they will never sit, and companies grow great when the leadership looks unselfishly towards the future. Sculley isn't in it for his own reputation; he's in it for the benefit of his mentees, allowing him to make bold and strategic moves that might not pay off until after he is gone.

Sculley learned from some really incredible people 30 years ago, but maintains that they aren't widely remembered. And yet, he remembers them fondly "because I learned from them. The legacy wasn't the handoff. It's the mentoring."

Published on: Nov 20, 2015
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