It was a complicated relationship that’s now been dramatized in several films, most recently in the Ashton Kutcher summer movie "Jobs." But when John Sculley, famously known as the CEO that once fired Steve Jobs, was a guest last week at the Forbes Global CEO Conference in Bali, he let attendees in a bit more on what actually went into that infamous corporate scuffle and how he now sees that “there could have been a different outcome."
“I really blame the board,” Sculley explained. “I think the board understood Apple at the time and understood Steve. I think there could have been a solution to keep me and Steve working together.”
The time of Jobs’ departure from Apple came during a rough patch for the company, and the founder’s “firing” was largely the result of a disagreement between the two men, as Sculley explained during his talk.
“Apple had failed with Lisa, had failed with the Apple III. The Apple II was near end of life. The company needed cash flow in order to finance the development of the Macintosh, which wasn’t expected to be profitable for several years, even after launch.”
“When the Macintosh Office, which was the next version of the Mac that was introduced in 1985, it failed. Steve went into a deep depression over it.”
“The reality was that the Macintosh Office was not powerful enough. ... It had nothing to do with Apple, it had to do with the stage of where microprocessing was. It just couldn’t do very much. It was being called a toy, it was being ridiculed in the market. Steve was discouraged.”
"And so Steve came to me and he said, 'I want to drop the price of the Macintosh and I want to move the advertising, shift a large portion of it away from the Apple 2 over to the Mac."
"And I said, 'Steve, it's not going to make any difference. The reason the Mac is not selling has nothing to do with the price or with the advertising. If you do that, we risk throwing the company into a loss.' And he just totally disagreed with me."
"And so I said, 'Well, I'm gonna go to the board.' And he said,'I don't believe you'll do it.' And I said, ‘Watch me.'"
Sculley explained that the board heard arguments from Jobs and himself and eventually sided with its CEO. Jobs was then taken off the Macintosh team.
The board didn’t, in fact, fire Jobs, as Sculley said. “He was still the chairman and largest shareholder.” Though Jobs has, even himself, used the word “fired” to describe his departure from Apple, eventually leaving the company after the power struggle between him and Sculley was his own choice.
The "fired" point is something that Sculley has no problem clearing up. In another interview with computer historian David Greelish, Sculley said, Jobs "was never actually 'fired' from Apple, but he was demoted from the role of leading the Macintosh division. ... Then he went off on sabbatical and then he eventually resigned from the company and took a number of key executives and started NeXT Computing."
Even still, Sculley — who has since been fired from Apple — said he regrets not reaching back out to Jobs after what transpired between the two.
“I felt most badly ... after 10 years I was at the company. ... I wanted to go back to New York, where I was from. ... And why I didn’t go to Steve Jobs and say, ‘Steve, let’s figure out how you can come back and lead your company.’ ... I didn’t do that. It was a terrible mistake on my part,” said Sculley.
“I can’t figure out why I didn’t have the wisdom to do that, but I didn’t. And, as life has it, shortly after that, I was fired" from Apple.
Sculley admitted to those in attendance that, at the time of Jobs’ departure from Apple, he might not have, himself, possessed “the breadth of experience ... to really appreciate just how different leadership is when you are shaping history.”
Watch the full video of Sculley's talk below.