Even before his death, Apple CEO and co-founder Steve Jobs’ resignation as CEO set the Twittersphere a-twitter late this summer with renewed discussion and debate about management succession. How do you capture the essence of genius? And how will Apple retain its culture of innovation, execution and growth?
Apple has a unique and powerful succession model built on its own experience in leadership, media and innovation. There was more at play as the dazzling Jobs handed the reins to Tim Cook — a calm and unflappable operations guy. Charismatic and super cool, Jobs was more than a business leader. As CEO, he embodied the essence of Apple — a vision and passion for design and product excellence wrapped in a perfectionist personality with amazing business savvy.
His ability to lead Apple with a laser-like focus and commitment to elegant and simple solutions stemmed not only from his leadership qualities but also his experience in the industry. Part of Jobs’ leadership strength came from his experience with innovation: Mac vs. PC, iPhone vs. BlackBerry, and iPad and iOS vs. everyone else. This deep experience in technology and the ability to refine and simplify it took years to develop.
So how can Apple — a company of more than 50,000 employees — build a culture that transcends Jobs’ leadership style and philosophy? I have met many Apple employees, and I learned Jobs’ force of personality was both revered and feared. One employee mentioned that she was afraid to run into him in the elevator because she feared she might not have a job when the doors opened.
This leadership style created a strong sense of execution and excellence at the company, but will be hard to replace. During his long career, Jobs developed a long list of management philosophies, and these need to be incorporated into the future.
Succession only works well when there is a clear understanding of the leadership traits and competencies needed at each level and executives at the top sponsor the process.
At Apple, the board and Jobs himself had been planning succession for several years.
Publicly, Apple has groomed Cook to take the top spot. He already has experienced the CEO role — he took over for Jobs during the latter’s medical leaves. He also worked directly with Jobs on the company’s supply chain and developed a deep understanding of its internal operations.
We also know there has been a project at Apple for several years to capture the essence of Jobs’ management philosophies for generations ahead. Under the title of dean of Apple University, Joel Podolny built a leadership curriculum around Jobs behind the scenes by collecting and curating internal case studies about significant decisions in Apple’s recent history.
While we have not seen the results, several ex-Apple employees have mentioned this as a strategic project designed to help Apple continue under Jobs’ leadership model.
Preserving, transferring and embedding culture in this way is another example of how Apple thinks differently. While most companies would look at competency models and hire executive recruiters to assess leadership candidates for succession, Apple is capturing the essence of its executive performance and philosophy in digital form for future leaders.
Most highly revered learning institutions bring together management philosophies, technical skills and leaders to help employees understand the organization, its principles and practices. The secretive Apple University has spent a lot of time and money capturing Jobs’ experiences and principles for others to use.
The company founded Apple University in 2008 to teach employees how to think like Jobs and make decisions he would make. In many ways it was built to solve the problem of running Apple after Jobs was gone and set in place the tools and information that helps Apple learn from his 30 years of wisdom.
Consider your own leadership succession plan and how to transfer skills and culture to new leaders who can take your company forward. Think differently about how to build a strong culture that transcends your leaders’ tenure.
Josh Bersin is the principal and founder of Bersin & Associates. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.