When Steve Jobs was in his late 20s, he was hunting for a CEO to run the company he founded, Apple.
Apple’s board told Jobs he needed adult supervision but that he could sign off on whoever it hired. Jobs and the board went through about 20 candidates, most in the tech sector, but Jobs vetoed them all.
Finally, he met John Sculley, who had risen to CEO of Pepsi in just 10 years. He also had a reputation for being a marketing master, having helped create the “Pepsi Challenge” campaign that sparked the so-called cola wars of the 1970s.
Sculley recalled meeting Jobs for the first time, in 1982, during an interview for Business Insider’s podcast, “Success! How I Did It.”
“When I got to Apple, I wasn’t even sure I was in the right place because there were no commercial buildings around – it was just houses and a few tilt-up structures,” Sculley said.
“It turned out that Steve was upstairs on the second floor of a converted house … The building where Steve was building the Macintosh – it was still over a year away from being introduced – had a pirate flag flying from the flagpole on top of the building, a one-story building. When I went in, there were motorcycles and a Bosendorfer piano, which is one of the highest-end pianos, because Steve loved beautifully designed products.”
When Sculley met Jobs, though, his strategy wasn’t to flatter the young founder. It was almost the opposite.
Here’s the relevant part of the interview:
Alyson Shontell: So you meet him, and, at this point, he’s turned down every other CEO option in tech, and he’s gone outside of tech now to find you. How did you win him over? What was that first meeting like? How did you not blow it like all the other guys did?
John Sculley: I decided to talk to him about things that I knew he knew nothing about.
Shontell: So you made him feel dumb?
Sculley: No. I wanted him to realize that he didn’t have all the answers. So I took him to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and I took him through the Greek sculpture and showed him what Praxiteles did with the Praxitelean curve. I showed him how the Parthenon was designed and the mathematics used behind it, and I started teaching him about all these things that he had never been exposed to before.
And I think it was, in hindsight, a good way for us to talk to each other: Let’s get to know each other on a subject that I thought I could spark his curiosity and something he didn’t know anything about.
Shontell: And it worked.
Sculley: It worked.
Five months later, Jobs offered Sculley the job. He initially turned it down, but then Jobs fed him the line that changed his mind: “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life? Or do you want to come with me and change the world?”
The next Monday, Sculley started as CEO of Apple.
To listen to Sculley discuss his rapid career rise and role at Apple, check out the full podcast episode below, or read the transcript here: