So Steve Jobs has announced his retirement from Apple. And people are asking if the heart has been ripped out of the company. Some have even asked, “Is Apple doomed?” The markets reacted by knocking several percentage points off Apple shares immediately after the announcement. Others though are saying that Apple will continue to be successful because o its brand, product line and fanatical following, and because of its design team. But, they also worry that, without Jobs, Apple will become just another bean-counting corporation, without any creative zing or mojo, a good company but no longer a great one. Obviously no one knows however and we will have to wait and see what actually happens.
But this retirement event – and it is an event since Apple are one one of the biggest, most successful and most influential companies in the last 50 years, and Steve Jobs has been the key player in it – should give all companies, big and small, food for thought. Is company life and succession after the retirement of the boss, especially such an influential boss as Jobs, properly considered and planned for?
IMHO, Steve Jobs may correctly be considered one of the all-time great company leaders, while he was there, but unless he has created the necessary conditions for someone(s) to succeed him and for them to continue leading the company more or less in the same way that he has, then his greatness will have had its limits.
The Apple board have already named the successor, the internal appointment of the former COO. And they have a wonderful team of people at the top. (Or at least they have wonderful people at the top who have been key to Apple’s success, but whether they are a team and whether they can operate as a team without Jobs is another matter.) So at least some of the conditions for effective succession and continuation therefore appear to be in place.
But, and this is a big but, I wonder whether the new CEO and his team allowed themselves to be disempowered by Jobs’ charisma and genius while he was there. I wonder, did they tend to rely on his intuition and not on their own when making strategic decisions? Did they try and second-guess what they thought he would say rather than working things out for themselves? Did they always defer to him rather than asserting their own views? These are the sorts of behaviors I have seen senior managers exhibit when there is a ‘great’ leader in the top job. And if they got into the habit of behaving like this when Jobs was around, I think they will have difficulty thinking for themselves, making decisions by themselves and for taking full responsibility.
If you are a CEO, whether of a small or large company, have a look at Jim Collins’ view of ‘Level 5 leadership’. However good you are as a CEO, you should always be wary of attracting power and responsbilility from the next generation to yourself. Instead, you should act to empower them as much as they can take so they can effectively take over from you when the time comes and continue your good work. Maybe Jobs has done this at Apple, we’ll see, but when a great leader departs, great companies risk going from Great to only Good.
In the bquest employee development system, we encourage participants to value the development of the next generation as part of their own development.