Is Apple’s Leadership Change in Progress?

December 23rd, 2008

So here’s the deal: Whenever Steve Jobs doesn’t emerge from his office or subterranean hiding place for a few weeks, the rumors about his health begin anew. Certainly his expected lack of visibility at the forthcoming Macworld Expo, where marketing VP Philip Schiller is slated to deliver the keynote, fuels the speculative files still further. Only the announcement that Apple would pull out of the Expo altogether diffused the issue, since it came at the same time and inspired its own level of serious online chatter.

When it comes to the health of a CEO, a company’s board does have the responsibility to inform stockholders when that person is unable to perform their assigned duties. Even a reduced work schedule is sufficient to require some sort of public confirmation.

Apple’s habitual secrecy about Jobs is all the more troubling in that environment. Even if not exactly true, surely they could put a spin on the situation that would satisfy most people and shut down the rumor mills before things get out of hand.

Instead, we have a certain phone call that Jobs made to a reporter for The New York Times a few months back, where he revealed his actual health problem off the record, and refused public comment other than to say it wasn’t life threatening. In a later meeting with the media, he even delivered his blood pressure readings, which were quite normal.

Sure, I’m inclined to take Jobs at his word, lacking any evidence to the contrary, except for one thing. The fact is that he doesn’t appear healthy in public. During his rare public presentations, he’s impressed people as exceedingly thin and not displaying the look of someone who is in good physical condition. That doesn’t help inspire confidence.

For most CEOs, that’s not a serious issue. There’s almost always a successor in the wings who would probably do as well for a company as the current occupant of that position. For better or worse, our educational institutions have turned out a class of professional managers who supposedly know how to get things done.

Jobs, however, is no normal CEO. In addition to being Apple’s co-founder, he is regarded as the brilliant visionary who drives the company’s insanely great product development.

Sure, he’s not a designer, or engineer. But he is reputed to have great instincts and he is thus the final arbiter of the even the most insignificant features in Apple’s new products. Indeed, for the most part, he’s been right on, and the company’s great success is proof.

It’s also true that Apple has over 30,000 employees now, and is by any measurement a pretty large company. Jobs also clearly has an instinct for finding great talent, and has surrounded himself with smart executives who know how to make wonderful things happen. No doubt many share his instincts and his vision.

So if Jobs left the world stage and returned to a private life where he just hung out with his family or traveled the world, you can bet he deserves to enjoy his remaining years, however many they will be. He is under no obligation to continue to lead Apple. Indeed, the company has grown up and flourished around him, so I rather think they would probably live long and prosper without him in the executive suite.

Indeed, it’s quite possible that he is already reducing his work at Apple even now, although I say this from a vantage outside the company with nothing more than my gut to call upon for this little tidbit of speculation. That may indeed be why Schiller is taking over that final Expo keynote. It is a way to prepare the public for the inevitable.

Now you’d probably expect a clean break, but maybe it’s better for all concerned — and certainly for the Apple watchers in the media and on Wall Street — if a leadership change is done gradually, in a way where it’s not terribly obvious to most observers.

When the final break comes, most people will be used to an Apple without Steve Jobs at the helm, and the negative impact to the stock price won’t be quite as severe.

Sure, Apple has gone through CEO transitions in the past, and they suffered under a number of executives who had no clue what Apple was all about and what it meant to loyal Mac users. They were in it for fast profits, and they frittered away great opportunities and, in the end, nearly killed the company.

Sure, anyone who is a fan of Apple’s gear should be grateful that Steve Jobs was able to save the company and deliver sales and profits that even the most optimistic financial analyst couldn’t expect. However, perhaps it’s time for him to move on and do other things for the rest of his life, which I hope will be long and healthy.

It’s not as if he needs the money.

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5 Responses to “Is Apple’s Leadership Change in Progress?”

  1. Richard says:

    MS will do nicely without Bill, maybe for generations. After all, MS is all but a monopoly in the business sector.

    Apple, however, is an underdog company. Underdog companies need to be nimble, smart, aggressive, and lucky. If Steve Jobs is ill, then Apple is not lucky. Really, that’s the whole thing.

    Jobs’ successor must rise to the occasion, or Apple declines.

  2. adam says:

    Something that Jobs has done in the last 10 years that he failed to do before he was pushed out originally:

    He has led Apple down a path that creates a real corporate identity which in many ways mirrors his vision. From my time working at Apple I am confident that Steve’s inevitable departure will be a transition not an implosion. There are good candidates at Apple who could step in tomorrow if the need were to arise. True, the company would change somewhat, but I don’t think that the changes would be drastic. Personally, I’d like to see Phil Schiller as the successor. I worked in Apple retail and he has both the vision and the skills needed to continue leading Apple on a successful path. He is also very good at gathering advice and suggestions from those who work for him and quickly sorting out what works and what doesn’t and implementing appropriate change efficiently. I’ve never met the man, and I no longer work for him, but I paid a lot of attention when I did.


  3. Gene Warech says:

    I agree that Apple seems to be as well armed for a CEO succession as most companies, a succession from within as opposed to their previous successions from outside. And 10 years of 24/7 exposure to Jobs may have created a visceral knowledge of how he thinks. As well, Jobs will (perhaps has share(d) his dreams and aspirations for Apple.
    What bugs me is that spreading of phony FUD about this or that aspect is a crucial tool of hedge fund short sellers (along with driving the price down by selling stock at incrementally lower prices). And any talk that propagates the wild conjecture helps the short sellers.

  4. You make a great point. Certain people profit when Apple loses — or wins for that matter. They don’t care what sort of rumors are float; they are only in it for the cash.


  5. doug says:

    Great article Gene, I think you called it exactly right.

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