I’ve written several times on Steve Jobs and Apple, one of the most fascinating companies and executives that we’ve seen in the history of high technology.
I don’t mean to make this a morbid article; the current (and now long-running) speculation on Steve Job’s health has been well-documented. I hope that Mr. Jobs is fine, and that he has many more years of good health, with a continued long reign at Apple.
But it does raise a slightly different question that is interesting to ponder. There has always be a “cult of personality” surrounding Apple and Steve Jobs. In fact, Apple stock often swings wildly on days when news about Jobs health comes out. The company has done well during short periods when he has been away, but Mr. Jobs is joined at the hip with Apple in the investment community and public’s eyes. Jobs will leave Apple at some point, hopefully to go into a happy retirement, as I stated above. Regardless of the circumstances of his leaving, what will become of the company once he is gone?
I can think of no tech company more closely associated with a founder/CEO than Apple and Jobs. Gates and Microsoft certainly are in that league, and I’m sure that you can think of others. But I doubt if you can think of any combination that is clearly more high profile and closely-linked.
Jobs has obviously been a major driver of Apple’s current success, and has enriched its many shareholders and other stakeholders. While it may be blasphemy to the Apple faithful, especially in recent times, in my opinion he has also been responsible for some of the company’s periodic downturns. Whether viewed strictly as the company’s savoir, or also an unstable dictator that has wrought big swings in the company’s performance over a long period of time–it’s undeniable that an unusual amount of responsibility has laid in Job’s hands–especially for a company of Apple’s enormous size. He is known to be detailed-oriented and involved (from a positive perspective), and a micro-manager and poor delegater assuming a more negative viewpoint. The basic premise of this article is that once he leaves Apple, there will be a leadership vacuum. This isn’t necessarily a prescription for catastrophe–but it is rarely a good thing for a company, at least in the short term. So what are the broader lessons we can glean from this fascinating situation with respect to managing high tech businesses? Apple really isn’t a rare case–tech companies cultures are built around their founder/CEO quite often, as I see often in my practice at PJM Consulting. This is a case study that can be instructive for many managers. Let’s take a look at a few potential lessons:
Difficult or Odd Corporate Culture
There is obviously much to be admired about Apple’s corporate culture, since it is a very successful company. Yet by many it is considered to be somewhat dysfunctional from a management standpoint. Much of this can be attributed to having a leader with a very strong and quirky style. Cultures tend to develop haphazardly as companies grow, even if its leaders have given some thought to the issue. In a corporation, everyone has a boss and other constraints put on them by the company’s social structure. This tends to dampen the effects of dysfunctional behavior by people up and down the organizational chart. The exception to this is the Founder/CEO who is the head of the organization. Much like the old story about the “Emperor who has no Clothes”, no one in an official capacity will call out the person at the top of the org chart on their bad behavior, decisions and eccentricities. This is dangerous and can lead to a culture and company policies becoming embedded with inappropriate ideas for no good reason, sometimes based on what lower level people BELIEVE the CEO would want. The takeaway is that leaders (especially strong ones) must take care not to have TOO GREAT an influence on the culture of the company simply because of their personal style.
Strong leader such as Jobs often tend to run companies in a dictatorial manner. They also have a tendency to have a “self-centric” view of the world, and don’t give sufficient thought to planning for the company’s future after their tenure. This may work well while they are in charge, but can lead to a company in disarray when they leave. It’s not clear that there is a clear successor, or strong group of potential successors, in place to follow Jobs at Apple. For a company of the size and stature of Apple, most people would think that this isn’t a good idea. Founding CEOs and Senior Executives with a similar organizational impact need to force themselves to step back from the present, and plan for a future without themselves. This isn’t a comfortable thing for many people, but is critically important for the full potential of their legacy to be fulfilled.
Dangerous Concentration of Responsibility in a Single Person
In a startup, the founders often wear many hats, and make all of the important decisions themselves. No doubt that Jobs and Wozniak personally handled nearly everything when Apple was formed. This is a very proper operating model for a startup. As a company grows, at some point it becomes a VERY INAPPROPRIATE model, and can put the company in great jeopardy. What if that leader has a heart attack or is in some other way unable to fulfill their critical role? Chaos can occur, and the company’s decision-making can be paralyzed, especially in the short term. In addition, I believe that the old saying of “two heads are better than one” usually holds true. I’m not one to endorse decisions-by-committee, but many corporate situations are complex and inherently risky, and the decision-making in these circumstances can benefit by having several strong viewpoints. CEOs should ensure that important decisions include at least some level of peer discussion and review, to avoid blind spots and major mistakes.
Strong leaders, especially those who are able to create a company from the ground up like Steve Jobs, are often “type A” personalities and micro-managers. This may be highly efficient when a company is in startup mode. Later on, however, it can lead to a lack of development of people down in the organization, as well as paralyze the organization’s ability to make quick decisions. The most effective leaders are those who are able to “let go” much of the decision-making as the company grows, while keeping their fingers on the pulse of what’s truly important. This is a very fine line to walk, no doubt, but it imo being able to successfully pull this off is one of the more important attributes of the very best corporate leaders.
Bench Strength – Can Worthy Managers Survive Under A Strong Leader?
Along the same lines as the Succession discussion above, attracting and retaining talented managers lower in the organization is usually critical to a company’s current success. If the leadership of the company tends to be dictatorial, micro-managers who hold on to most of the responsibility, lower-level managers may become demoralized. The management team needs to be developed, and feel like they have real responsibility and some control of their own destiny. When the guy at the top is holding on to all the power, strong leaders further down in the organization have a tendency to move on to other companies, where they feel like they are making an impact and have an opportunity to progress. The best leaders ensure that the conditions are in place attract, nurture, develop and retain the management talent required for a company’s continued growth and success.
Apple is a great tech company, and Steve Jobs is one of our industry’s legendary entrepreneurs and managers. Yet every company, even highly successful ones like Apple, has holes in its game. There are many strong leaders much like Jobs at the head of software a
nd tech companies. Too often their strength is manifested with a very short term view of the organization. Although difficult to do, the strongest leaders operate with a view on not just optimizing the immediate issues facing them, but also plan ahead so that the company can function well even without their personal involvement. Often this means suppressing some of their own natural tendencies so that the overall organization can more fully develop. The resulting decentralization of power reduces a number of risks that are inherent when too much depends on a single individual. That’s my own view–post a comment if you have additional views to add to this discussion.