And so it begins: the life of Apple, post Steve Jobs. Jobs announced yesterday that he would step down as CEO, effecting a smooth transition to known successor Tim Cook.
Jobs is surely not just any retiring CEO. As an entrepreneur, he built a company that changed history. Like many entrepreneurial founders, he did it by force of personality and personal vision, without much concern for consensus or committees. And like many, he paid the price when the narrative took hold that he’d lost his touch, and his board lost faith. But very unlike that typical experience, he found his way back to the CEO job and put the company back in the game. It was quite a feat, and speaks to the specialness of this particular man.
But now it’s time for Apple as an organization to pull off a feat of its own: it needs to continue on its trajectory without a visionary founder to rally behind. It has had the luxury of having a personification of its ethos, and now it must either allow someone else to be that, or learn to operate effectively without one.
History shows it isn’t easy. Wang did not survive the departure of An Wang; Digital Equipment never flew high again after Ken Olsen. Untold numbers of firms that hadn’t attained such heights when they lost their founders fizzled more quietly.
But history also shows it’s possible to continue on a bold path post-founder. Sometimes it’s because a new visionary leader manages to inspire. Jeff Sonnenfeld notes in The Hero’s Farewell (still the best book on CEO succession, and particularly good reading for this week) about IBM, AT&T, Sears, and General Motors that “their days of greatest glory were not under the reign of the founding entrepreneurs,” but under the professional managers that followed them.
Sometimes, too, organizations go onto greater glory because they’ve learned how to manage without a legend walking the halls. It should be possible, after all: it’s the organization is who has been doing the work all along. One man’s labor is a drop in the bucket. This has been the achievement of UPS since Jim Casey. Post Sam Walton, it’s what Walmart hopes to pull off.
The problem is that, in order to make the bold moves that keep companies from succumbing to creative destruction, leaders need license to act. And founder entrepreneurs have incredible license. At Apple, Steve Jobs’ word can be law — and not just in the narrow sense of organizational policy but in the bigger sense of what deserves to be developed, what customers covet, what constitutes cool. Again, the license is not unlimited; founders who misjudge markets royally lose their license to operate. But the reality is that it often is not the perfectness of a particular idea, but the vigor behind its execution, that makes something big succeed. And a leader whose vision is unchallenged internally has a greater ability to marshal that energy. This is the sense in which Apple has enjoyed a luxury.
When a non-founder takes the helm, the organization is not so universally convinced that the soul of the company resides in him or her. The question of who is the true keeper of the flame is suddenly in play, and others on the premises, whether they aspire to the CEO role or not, anoint themselves. The mission zeal that makes an organization so powerful when united can make it, without a unifying force, disastrously prone to internecine battles.
Whether Apple’s new leader can keep the company riding high is dependent on his own skills. Most important for Tim Cook is that he not assume that he has the same license, and that he seek consciously to earn it. But it is even more dependent on the organization – Tim Cooks’ direct reports, and their direct reports, and the legions of middle managers who are the lifeblood of the place. They must remain committed to the proposition that an Apple unified is more powerful than an Apple divided. They must find ways to make bold decisions they can collectively embrace. They must learn to project their own guiding light.