Who will succeed to Steve Jobs?

30 Sep 2010 | in Management, Steve Jobs history

Interesting article I stumbled upon today, from a Jon Korbin on EzineMark.com. It deals with what I think is one of the most controversial issues for Apple in the future: the succession of Steve Jobs.

The 2-part article starts with a highly dithyrambic description of Steve’s role at Apple, one even your fellow webmaster would not dare write. Excerpt:

He has erected temples to Apple’s greatness in major cities around the world whose awesome presence evokes imagery of high priests and virgins surrounded by platinum chalices spilling over with grapes on the vine.

My attention was caught by the following two points in the article — they reflect my two main concerns about a Steve-less Apple. First, the control that only Steve can have a huge corporation like Apple.

His intimidating sense of control has afforded him the kind of command over this ever-growing audience that seldom belongs to individuals who don’t draw their power from Government or God.

The author is referring to Apple fanboys like us. But this is not the issue. The issue is about Apple itself.

Think about it. When Steve was at Apple in the early 1980s, until he quit in 1985, he never assumed great power over the company. Apple was ruled by the older investors like Mark Markkula, then by the subsequent CEOs, Mike Scott and John Sculley. Steve could not have his way — he was even pushed away from the LISA project, a move which led to his taking over the Macintosh project. When Steve came back in 1997, things were not that easy either; he was only acclaimed for his success with Pixar, but everyone acknowledged NeXT was a failure. He was able to run Apple with an iron hand only because the company was in dire straits. It was only after he brought about the renaissance of Apple that he started to earn the total respect of his employees. This veneration only increased with time. Who at Apple could argue long with the guy who created the company, saved it, and brought the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad to the world?

Here’s the question: who could possibly have such power on the company after he leaves? Indeed, I believe one of the biggest competitive advantage of Apple is its super-high discipline to execute behind a clear vision. This comes from the top. But will this continue once Steve is gone? Can you imagine, say, Tim Cook imposing his views on both Jony Ive (product design) and Phil Schiller (marketing)? Gosh, I don’t want to think about that. The point is: suppose someone as great as Steve comes along (which I highly doubt), it would take him (her?) years to earn the kind of respect that Steve Jobs currently has on Apple. And the company could sink before that time comes.

The other point I wanted to make is about Steve’s unique genius. Korbin writes:

Apple has existed with & without Jobs over the years and while it is certain that Jobs has brought a lot of value, the thought that Apple, a system of so many organs, arteries, and working processes, would face a terminal diagnosis with his excision, is presumptuous and impossible IBM moved forward with the loss of Tom Watson. Microsoft moved forward, and continues to do so as the market leader, without Bill Gates as CEO.

I believe both the argument and its justification are wrong. I mean, the guy dares to say Microsoft is doing fine these days. We’re talking about a company which hasn’t brought a single innovation to the market in over 20 years of world domination, and whose revenues are still almost solely based on its decades-old legacy — namely Office and Windows. Steve Jobs himself talked about the departure of Bill Gates (and even IBM!) in this very interesting interview from 2004 :

People always ask me why did Apple really fail for those years, and it’s easy to blame it on certain people or personalities. Certainly, there was some of that. But there’s a far more insightful way to think about it. Apple had a monopoly on the graphical user interface for almost 10 years. That’s a long time. And how are monopolies lost? Think about it. Some very good product people invent some very good products, and the company achieves a monopoly.

But after that, the product people aren’t the ones that drive the company forward anymore. It’s the marketing guys or the ones who expand the business into Latin America or whatever. Because what’s the point of focusing on making the product even better when the only company you can take business from is yourself?

So a different group of people start to move up. And who usually ends up running the show? The sales guy. John Akers at IBM is the consummate example. Then one day, the monopoly expires for whatever reason. But by then the best product people have left, or they’re no longer listened to. And so the company goes through this tumultuous time, and it either survives or it doesn’t.

Q: Is this common in the industry?

A: Look at Microsoft — who’s running Microsoft?

Q: Steve Ballmer.

A: Right, the sales guy. Case closed. And that’s what happened at Apple, as well.

These words almost speak for themselves, don’t they? I think it’s very clear about the future of Apple. Its only hope is to find a successor to Steve Jobs that has both his love for great products and his extraordinary business acumen. That’s right, Steve is both a product guy and a sales guy! This combination is extremely rare…

The article ends on the usual “Steve should prepare his succession”. Easy to say, but, Steve’s ego put aside (I think he’d like to run Apple for another ten years, because as he often said, that’s what “keeps him up in the morning”), I don’t think it’s that easy to do.

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