When Steve Jobs underwent surgery for a rare form of pancreatic cancer last summer, one serious question reared its ugly head: What will Apple do when Steve Jobs is gone? I’m not assuming he’s not long for this world. He could, for example, simply retire, and why isn’t important. Regardless of the reason, what is Apple’s succession plan? How will it survive without its co-founder?
With most large corporations, this isn’t a big issue. One CEO replaces another and life goes on, more or less. It’s just a game of corporate musical chairs. But Steve Jobs isn’t just another CEO, as we all know. He is Apple’s soul. He is the master salesperson with ability to guide, force, prod, and downright threaten his staff to continue to produce insanely great products. True there would be no iPod, no Mac mini, no iMac G5 and so on and so forth without the combined efforts of thousands of highly talented and disciplined employees. But the vision, the direction, had to come from the top.
As you recall, in the years between Jobs’ forced departure and his triumphant return, Apple lost its way and at one point came dangerously close to bankruptcy. On the other hand, if Jobs had remained onboard, without the experience of NeXT and Pixar under his belt, things might have turned out differently.
But there’s no sense speculating on what might have been. Today Apple is on a roll, optimism is high, and even most of the analysts on Wall Street are caught up in the excitement. If the company can stay the course, as they say in politics, it might make a real dent in PC marketshare for the first time in years. As the astrologers say, the stars are lining up just right for Apple Computer.
Ideally, Steve Jobs might remain in charge for another two decades, or maybe even more. As lifespans increase, it isn’t uncommon to see chief executives working full time through their 70s and beyond, and you have to assume that medical science will find ways to preserve a healthy lifestyle for a lot longer. I won’t get into the science fiction concepts of immortality, the cloning controversy or similar subjects, of course. That remains way beyond the point of this discussion.
The real issue is whether Apple is grooming somebody to replace Steve Jobs. True Steve Jobs has a son, a preteen, but there’s no telling how far the apple has fallen from the tree and whether, in his 20s, he’ll be able to take over from his dad and keep the company moving in the right direction. Or whether he or any of Jobs’ other children will even be interested in the “family business.” Realistically, Apple’s board of directors has to look at the company’s existing staff or up and coming executives from other technology companies for a successor.
Of course, until Jobs returned to Apple and took over the company, the quality of leadership in the CEO’s office was a mixed bag at best. And you can’t just take any old MBA and groom that person to become a 21st century visionary for a multinational technology company. Even an executive with a good track record elsewhere may not be a suitable candidate. Apple, for better or worse, is a unique entity. Despite its tiny share of the PC marketplace, for example, it can generate a tremendous amount of press with nearly any new product announcement. Even Sony, once the king of the hill among consumer electronics companies, can’t do that.
It’s not that a company run by Steve Jobs can’t manage without him, of course. Consider Pixar, which owes its great success to the talents of a team of brilliant animators who somehow manage the impossible task of making one successful motion picture after another. Pixar manages to run itself even when Jobs is doing its thing over at Apple.
In the scheme of things, of course, perhaps we’re giving Steve Jobs a little too much credit. Perhaps his famous reality distortion field makes us all believe he is indispensable, that he cannot be replaced by someone who may even be able to do a better job. Regardless, the board of directors of Apple Computer is doing a disservice to its shareholders by not putting a clear succession plan in place.
Or maybe there is a succession with an “Apple Confidential” label on it, one that won’t be disclosed until Steve Jobs is on the way out, whenever that happens.
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