Companies can sag upon transition from founder to successor. Will Apple?
History is rife with examples of companies that lost their cutting edge along with their founders. As Steve Jobs steps back from Apple, some analysts say innovation may slide. Others see 'deep bench of talent.'
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Last time, it didn't go so well. Will this time be any better for the company that turned the lowercase "i" into shorthand for everything cool in the tech world?
The prognostications about Apple without Mr. Jobs as CEO (he will stay on as chairman of the board) run the gamut. Some predict the firm will lose its cutting edge. Others suggest that, at least for the next few years, Apple has a few more hands to play. One thing seems clear: Handing off the baton from visionary founder to successor is often a difficult transition for firms – and can mark a company's shift from industry innovator to corporate stalwart.
Jobs's strength, and hence Apple's strength, has always been what Faisal Hoque calls “disruptive technology” – that is, coming up with creations that upset and redefine a market. But “every firm with a charismatic leader and public face must eventually move from constantly being disruptive to a sustainable process for the long term,” says Mr. Hoque, author of “The Power of Convergence: Linking Business Strategies and Technology Decisions to Create Sustainable Success."
Outsider John Sculley took over for Jobs in 1983, but left a decade later under a cloud. “The company has clearly learned from that earlier experience and has a deep bench of talent and solid processes in place to move ahead,” says Mr. Hoque. Jobs picked 13-year Apple veteran Tim Cook, a loyal and experienced team player, to replace him – an executive whom Hoque sees as steeped in the process side of Apple's business and as "well-positioned" to move the company forward.
Part of the challenge of the handoff, Apple watchers agree, is that Jobs himself is irreplaceable.
Having “that knowledge of what the market will crave is unique to Steve Jobs in our generation,” says George Haley, director of the Center for International Industry Competitiveness at the University of New Haven's College of Business. “If you look back at the history of innovation, the ability to understand what the market will go wild for is crucial. Nobody else [but Jobs] has had the string of innovation time after time.”
With Jobs in the wings as board chairman but removed from day-to-day operations, many analysts wonder about the working relationship with Mr. Cook. Will Cook be able to chart a new course for the company, or will he be relegated to carrying out Jobs's vision from the sidelines? wonders Mr. Haley.
A more serious issue may be Jobs’s ability to keep pace with marketplace tastes and needs if he is no longer in the daily fray. “This ability to read the marketplace has really been his great strength, and if he is removed from that contact he may miss critical shifts,” adds Haley.