Looking Back: Trading in the Corporate World for an iPhone
By Chuck Cusumano
In July of 2007, I traded in the world’s most popular device (at the time) for the world’s (not yet crowned) most notable modern invention.
Looking back on that day in July is like being Forest Gump in some of the most important scenes in history – I was there, but I was subtly existing in the background.
Why July 2007, you ask? It was arguably one of the most pivotal moments in modern-day society and technology, as well as a pivotal moment in my personal life.
It was on that day that I turned over my corporate-issued Blackberry and stood in line (for 4.5 hours, mind you) to pick up the just-released iPhone. That phone’s worldwide debut (now affectionally referred to as the iPhone original) was a notable turning point in history.
But it was more than just a technological turning point for me – at the time, it was a substantial point in my own history; my own debut, if you will.
Essentially, the history of the iPhone’s debut is on the same timeline as the debut of The Joshua Group Consulting and our (my) Southeast U.S. debut.
It was a new era for technology—but it was a new era for me, as well.
Trading a Blackberry for a New Way of Life
Let me clarify what I mean.
When I turned in my corporate-issued Blackberry, what I was really doing was turning in a way of life.
At the time, that Blackberry represented the epitome of my corporate life with a corner office, multiple executive assistants, deferred compensation, stock options, an expense account, quarterly and yearly embarrassingly-large bonuses, a 7-series BMW... and the list goes on.
All of these things were granted to me due to my executive position (station) in the corporate business world.
These were many of the trappings of business success in the early days of the new century. If you were somebody in a Fortune 500 company, you undoubtedly possessed the Blackberry. Why? Because you were so important that you needed access to electronic documents (email, reports, and beyond) on a teeny-tiny little screen with a teeny-tiny little keyboard at all hours of the day.
That being said, because you were so important (at least, that was the mindset in the circles I was in), you did not do email yourself; you had an executive assistant (or several) to handle all that busy work of back-and-forth emailing. You simply would not have time to handle that monotony – you were expected to be tied up in meetings and making important decisions all day long.
The Blackberry was a symbol, but it was also simply a way for you to monitor all that was going on in your important business world. A laptop? Forget about it! Those things were 5-6 lbs. at the time and took forever to fire up.
No, the symbol of corporate status was the Blackberry. It erased and replaced all other mobile devices (like the Razor phone) as the new standard in business "I-have-arrived"-style success.
The iPhone, alternatively, was a toy.
It was not meant to be used as a business tool.
Who would want to try and type on a keyless keyboard? What do those things called apps do, anyway? Why would serious businesspeople have time for a bunch of games and things – we are far too busy trying to run things and make important decisions.
Why in the world would I want to listen to music on a phone? I have a top-of-the-line, way-too-expensive sound system and Plasma TV home theater setup when I want to enjoy music and entertainment.
This is what we told ourselves – or, at least, what we were told by our companies' CIOs.
All of that to really illustrate my point: when I turned in my corporate Blackberry, I turned in my way of life that had ruled my everyday reality for nearly two whole decades.
In other words, I turned in my corporate job for good.
The Ultimate Present – A Whole New Life
At the end of July in 2007, my birthday was approaching, and I rationalized the best present I could think of.
I was going to quit my job – I was going to quit the corporate hamster wheel. I could not think of a more appropriate gift.
Just a few months earlier, I had been filling in as co-Division president. I believed that if I became the sole Division President, then I would be finally satisfied in my position. Once I reached Division President at a Fortune 500 company, my life would get easier – or at least that is what I told myself. Maybe then I would feel like I was making a difference in what I was doing.
And then, a call came in on my Blackberry from the corporate guy who was earning a strong seven-figure salary (and to this day I still do not really know what he did for that salary). The little speaker inside the Blackberry broadcasted his voice with amazing accuracy, telling me that corporate headquarters would be sending over a new president in two weeks.
The allure and shininess of the Blackberry ended that day. It somehow lost its usefulness to me. I saw it for what it was – a device that once was the envy of all my peers but was now just a tired tool that refused to change and adopt to the current environment.
The corporate guy offered some encouragement. Thank you for running the division for the last three months with incredible results, the little speaker in the Blackberry continued to chirp. And, yes, you and the CFO would receive an extra-large helping of a corporate bonus at the end of the year for all your hard work.
I was confused, though. If our division was running so well, why did we need a president? The CFO and I were handling things without missing a beat. And the guy they were sending, to be honest, was not all that talented.
The corporate guy told me he knew all of this. He also told me the corporation "believed in me so much, that is why they felt comfortable sending this guy to be the new president because they believed I could train him in my specialties." I thought to myself, this would be the fourth division president I would be lucky enough to train!
Why could I be the go-to trainer, the fill-in president when the company needed it, and the one they turned to for guidance and help and still not be a candidate for the title myself?
He told me I was too valuable in my current role to be president.
I could not believe those words had come through the tiny speaker of my Blackberry. Surely this device was broken. The little speaker did not really just squeak that out, or did it?
Trading in a Revolutionary Tool for a Personal Evolution
Blackberry was substantial in the evolution of business communication.
It was a phone, sure, but it could also provide access to email on a device that you could hang on your hip. The Blackberry invented typing with your thumbs through its ergonomic keyboard.
If any of you are struggling to understand the significance of this (maybe Blackberries were before your time), having access to wireless email and a wireless phone that you could carry around was absolutely revolutionary!
This was so true, in fact, that Mike Lazaridis (the inventor of the Blackberry and founder of the company) had the fastest-growing company on earth at that time. Having a Blackberry was nothing short of saying, “I am important.”
Oprah Winfrey had one and said it changed her life. Bill Gates had two of them, reportedly. When President Barack Obama moved into the White House in 2009, he refused to give his up to the Secret Service.
In 2009, half of all smartphones on the planet were Blackberries. Sure, the iPhone had made a big splash in 2007, but the Blackberry was still "king of the hill" in business.
In his New York Times best-selling book Think Again, Adam Grant gives us the why behind the death of the Blackberry. Mostly, Blackberry refused to evolve to recognize that people wanted to have a browser on their phone.
This was something they could have done it back in 1997 – 10 whole years before Apple did it – but Mike Lazaridis would not do it. It is hard to see any other way as the right way when you have already convinced yourself that you have done something correctly.
And honestly, can you blame him? He invented the OG – why mess with perfection?
And that is what was happening with me at my corporate job. When I asked corporate guy why I was not being given the president’s role, he could not see how doing something different than what the company had always done could be beneficial.
Guys like me made great money, we had all the attention, and we did not have to deal with the headaches that presidents do.
In those days, if you were a company guy then you did what the company said to do: get in line, get your big paycheck, work really hard, move your family when the company says, and most of all, do not buck the status quo.
I was done with the status quo. I was done with that Blackberry.
In 1999, I gave my last Windows computer away. Everything in our home was an Apple product. The only non-Apple computer gizmos my wife and I had were what we were required to have for work.
I told the incoming president that I appreciated his acknowledgment of the team’s abilities and his excitement to work with me, but – respectfully – I was not going to stick around.
The Joshua Group and a New Phone are Born
Two weeks later, I walked out of the corner office and drove straight to the Apple store. I purchased the non-business toy phone, and I never looked back.
My transformation was complete with a new smartphone in my hand. No more status quo business thinking, no more Blackberries – nothing but out-of-the-box thinking and bold moves for this new person, household, and start-up business!
To this day, we still do not use anything but Apple products at The Joshua Group.
I still do not have any personal computing products other than Apple in my home.
I guess you can call me a brand loyalist.
In the 14 years since leaving corporate America, things have changed a lot.
My iPhone original has evolved over the years as new releases came out. Now, I have an iPhone 12 Pro.
I have not used a laptop in 8 years – only iPad Pros. Most of the corporate America trappings have disappeared with the financial crisis and COVID-19 remote-working trend.
In the early days of Apple, we were all rebels. In the mid 90s we had a cult following; if you had a Mac issue, you just entered a chat room and your fellow Mac members would help you out.
The Joshua Group Consulting has expanded and contracted and expanded again over the past 14 years in a continual evolution.
Back in 2007, the term “coaching” was not really around. (We did it, we just called it consulting.) In fact, the study and advancement of leadership was not really a thing back then either. We trained on it, consulted on how to have it, but it was management consulting at best.
I can remember the early day when a few of my original consultants would roll into a boardroom full of white starched shirts and ties; we, on the other hand, had a jacket, no ties, and a Mac laptop and iPhone.
You could say the cool consultant factor was real. We were cutting-edge. We were rule-breakers. People hired us because they realized they could not figure out how to think outside their own box.
We might have been cool, but we were still kept on the fringes. There was an attitude that said, “Do not get too close to the consultants or you may get a bad reputation with the company.”
We were the hired guns. Come in, do the job, charge high fees, walk out the door looking for your next paycheck. No paycheck security. No 401K. None of the fringe benefits the others at the conference table possessed. But they all wanted to check out our new sleek laptops and tell us that they just purchased an iPhone for their spouse or for personal use, the Blackberry still hanging from their hips.
That was then, though. We are not that company anymore either. We have evolved.
Looking back is always an opportunity to learn.
I acknowledge we did not know everything back then, just like we do not know everything now.
Importantly, there was nothing wrong with the people that wanted the perceived security of a stable work environment. Just like there was nothing wrong with the Blackberry.
That is, until someone or something shows up that is a little more edgy and aggressive than the last thing.
I now work with many 20-somethings. They are edgy. They are aggressive in some ways. They definitely do things differently from how I do things. But I love working with them. They keep me from becoming the corporate guy saying the standard corporate stuff.
That being said, I refuse to convert to their Google docs and only texting to communicate – I need some nonverbal communication and I need to hear a voice!
Stay tuned… I may be turning into a 2021 version of the Blackberry!
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Reach out to us at email@example.com to learn more and see the kind of partnership we can create together!