Apple CEO Steve Jobs needs a succession plan

What Steve Jobs did on Monday took guts. The CEO of Apple admitted that he is suffering from a hormone imbalance that is causing his noticeable weight loss and has triggered widespread speculation as to his ability to lead one of the world’s most innovative technology companies.

My heart goes out to Jobs and his family as he deals with what must be a difficult situation, both personally and professionally. “So now I've said more than I wanted to say, and all that I am going to say, about this,” his public statement said. Yet the truth is, had Jobs done more to create a visible succession plan at Apple, he might not have had to say nearly as much.

Ever since his triumphant return to the helm in 1998, the success and achievements of Apple as a company have been inextricably linked with Job’s own performance as a manager. There is little doubt he has achieved a major turnaround, even several turnarounds, over the last 10 years. One of the differences between management and leadership, however, is the ability to put people in place that can carry on after you. This is a standard practice within some of the major vendors, even those whose CEOs might also be accused of having a Messiah complex.

Lou Gerstner reportedly ruled IBM with something of an iron first, but he restored the fortunes of Big Blue and developed in Sam Palmisano an executive who has proven capable of continuing to steer the ship. If Mark Hurd got hit by a bus tomorrow Ann Livermore, among others, would probably be able to keep HP on track. Larry Ellison will probably never give up the reigns at Oracle, but Chuck Phillips is hardly a puppet incapable of managing without him. Even Bill Gates spent a few years ensuring Steve Ballmer and Ray Ozzie were prepared for his departure. (A notable exception to this rule is Dell, where Michael Dell’s hope in Kevin Rollins flamed out spectacularly).

It’s not that Apple doesn’t have other executives, it’s just that they aren’t even close to achieving the same kind of profile as their counterparts. Phil Schiller, who will deliver the MacWorld Expo keynote in Jobs’ absence, has a long track record with the company but this opportunity is a rare one for him. Apple COO Tim Cook is probably not familiar to even the Mac Faithful.

Why is succession at Apple so important? Because with the iPhone’s introduction last year, Apple became a viable enterprise contender. Not that IT managers are likely to install more Xserves or other pieces of Mac business hardware, but because its smart phone may become the corporate computing device of the future, just as it is already the personal computing device of today. With that success comes a need for vision, future direction and a roadmap that takes into account potential changes at the top.

When Jobs left Apple, the company went through a downward spiral and one management misstep after another. I hope the day never comes, because I admire what Steve Jobs has done at Apple, but he needs to lay the groundwork for the post-Jobs era now. While most media quoted Jobs’ letter, few mentioned the statement that was put out by Apple’s board of directors, which said it was standing by its man:

“It is widely recognized both inside and outside of Apple that Steve Jobs is one of the most talented and effective CEOs in the world,” the board said. “If there ever comes a day when Steve wants to retire or for other reasons cannot continue to fulfill his duties as Apple’s CEO, you will know it.”

Will we ever.

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