Is it Time for Steve to Step Down?

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Recent questions regarding Steve’s health have renewed calls for a succession plan at Apple. While I hardly give two shakes over the “Industry Concerns” cited in the recent New York Post article, I would go a little further and suggest that what Apple needs is not a ‘Succession Plan‘, but a new CEO.

As startling a statement to make as that is, hold the flames for just a few more moments, follow me after the jump to find out why.

Forget about ‘Shareholder Value’, we ‘Cultists’ have an interest in Apple’s continuity simply because we want to continue to enjoy incredible Apple products. While Steve is certainly irreplaceable, I think now is the time to start trying.

Steve’s not really the CEO

Hard-Fact: Steve is might be the ideal CEO because he doesn’t actually try and run the company. He lets his CFO and COO do that. He really does the job of three people as the Head Strategist, Chief Creative Officer, and Company Spokesperson. The good-news: we don’t have to find just one person to fill his shoes.

Mr. Jobs Your Slip is Showing

Apple leaned down considerably on Steve’s return, and it’s a point of some pride how they kept their operation tight. That said, recent snafus with MobileMe and iPhone activations really demonstrate that currently Steve is a single point of failure and a choke point in the Apple creative process. Even if he doesn’t step down, he’s going to have to cultivate some “apprentices” to delegate things to if Apple is to continue their growth.

A Transition Period is better than a Succession Plan

I am by no means arguing that Steve should leave Apple, but he does need to start the process of passing the torch. No one could have imaged GE without Thomas Edison either, but it prevailed because Edison cultivated a cadre of visionary disciples to carry on. Apple too, will prevail, but only if Steve demonstrates the same courage.

Don’t Jump the Shark

Winners leave when they’re on top, on their own terms. Lesser men slink away after launching Vista.   Organizations have inertia of their own, Apple’s star is on the rise, and it’s likely to continue to do so regardless of who’s at the helm. That makes now the best possible time for a transition. If Apple waits much longer they risk becoming victims of their own success; an infusion of new blood would invigorate the company as well as spin all us Cultists up in fervor –œHeck, his successor would probably receive more coverage than the iPhone.

Apple could to neutralize the “Health Question” with the addition of a few dedicated apprentices in a way that a mere succession plan never could.  Instead of a years of uncertainty and question, we could enjoy years of continued growth and an assurance that Steve’s legacy will carry on. I am reminded of that scene in The Godfather, when Michael takes over the family and fires Tom Hagen as Consiglieri, saying: “Besides — if I ever need help, who’s a better Consiglieri than my father?”

The Achilles heel of this notion of course is Steve’s personality, and if he’d be able to step back and let an apprentice run the show, that said, ultimately it won’t be a question of “if” but “when”.

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  • Josh Crane

    I think Steve will know when the time is right and pass the torch of Apple’s success to someone else.

  • Adrian

    I think for now Steve should not pass the torch because there a lot of things to do in Apple. Steve needs to push the company to the next level.

    Steve is the only one who can run the Apple, because the definition of Apple is Steve Jobs.

  • Inglesh Profeserr

    It’s “cited” not “sited”.

  • Ras

    Sorry, Apple ISN’T Steve Jobs, and he would be the first to tell you. He is quite serious when he gives all the props to those hard workers that make the things happen. There is a lot of vision in the company, which Steve has pushed to come to the fore.

    So the idea of apprentices (note the pleural) I think is a good idea. And even enabling to allow Steve to cut back (they need 3 super guys to take My Place). in terms of ego. And the succession need not be the same rate in all roles. Putting someone in the CEO place might even come first (and maybe Apple will pay Steve 3$ for the other roles).

  • John Wright

    Honestly guys I think I disagree here. I think at the moment Apple IS Steve Jobs, to a large extent. I agree with the thrust of the OP, Steve should start recruiting a disciple. But I think he needs to find one who believes the same things as him, sips from the same coffee mug, has the same future in mind, has been influenced and inspired by Jobs personally: that’s the way to keep this Jobsian Apple fresh. What distinguishes Apple from every other computer/consumer electronics company?? It’s Steve Jobs. When he left, it went to shit, when he returned, it reached unprecedented heights. Jobs IS Apple and Apple IS Jobs. Those are big shoes to fill.

  • auramac

    If you choose to fall into the rumours and lies behind the market manipulation, I’d suggest forgetting about Apple and start covering someone else- maybe Dell, or Microsoft. Otherwise, I’m sure that Steve Jobs and Apple are far more capable than the idiots here offering their advice as to how to best run the company. They must be doing something right. In fact- they are. I’m keeping a record as to which sites are credible and worth visiting on a continual basis, and I’m afraid you’ve lost me here. Closet-tabloid journalism?….

  • owen-b

    Good grief. What the heck does Steve Jobs have to do with Mobile Me and the iPhone activation process not going as smoothly as it could/should have done?

    There’s some quality BS written for this site, there really is.

  • Curtis Magnuson

    You must be joking. Steve Jobs is the guiding vision at Apple. That is his primary value. Execution is what is recently lacking in a few spots. This is not Steve Jobs’s “time to plan/make a departure”. This is the time for Steve Jobs to plan the conquest of the marketshare left by a stumbling Microsoft.

  • Andrew DK

    Shut your yap Owen quit hatin on the site.

    That is a good article and it presents a good idea I hadn’t thought of before. I kinda think the first two roles could be rolled into one or one of the rolls could be shared between two people. In reality though, it’s gotta be one guy at the top and he has to be as charming and smooth Steve. Someone’s gotta be able to take the stage and show the world their next obsession.

  • Bill Graefe Jr

    LINKBAIT!

    No freaking way SJobs should step aside. Public transition plan — yes — just to shut the press up and because it makes good business sense.

  • leigh

    @Auramac:

    I fail to see either rumors or lies in the post. Not that I’m above either (Though, I do like to toss in wild speculation as well). Jobs is a human being who will die. He does have Pancreatic Cancer which generally is a death sentence, and there is no succession plan in place at Apple.

    The gist of the article is that even if we get a guaranteed 50 more years of Steve (which I hope and pray we do, by god), I would like to company to continue after he leaves.

    THE ONLY way it’s going to continue in the same manner as today is NOT with a succession plan, but with a disciple or group of apprentices who are given authority, and yet still have the masters wisdom to draw upon. That will also take time, which is why it’s important to start sooner rather than later.

  • Dev

    You really think Steve is to blame for MobileMe and activation issues? That doesn’t seem too correct!

  • leigh

    @Dev & Owen: Yes I think Steve is personally responsible for everything bad that happens everywhere. //not.

    The point is that Apple is a dictatorship and one of the issues with such organizations is they become single threaded at the dictator.

    Frankly its been AMAZING to me that Apple has been able to accomplish as much as it has with as tight a ship as they run. It’s REALLY remarkable. It’s a freeking case study in organizational efficiency –seriously this is what I do for a living, and I’ve **NEVER** seen a company as tightly or efficiently run as Apple. And that is by and large to the direct control Jobs has over product development, he replaces bureaucracy with cult-of-personality and it works.

    That said, as they begin to (re)expand their product portfolio it becomes more than even an amazing individual like Steve can handle.

  • Doug S.

    I think Leigh’s piece is good food for thought, and certainly Apple will have to figure out how to do without Steve Jobs sooner or later. His ideas strike me as quite sound, given that fact.

    However, something in his comment should be corrected: Jobs is *not* necessarily living under a “death sentence.” According to the information that has been made public, Jobs had the rare form of pancreatic cancer that is actually treatable by surgery, and if the surgery goes according to plan, prospects for long-term survival is actually pretty good. It’s the common form of the disease that is a death sentence — 3-6 months from the time of diagnosis, typically. My father lasted 9 months after his diagnosis, and he did unusually well. The problem is that it is so hard to detect because of the location in the body that by the time you know the tumor is there, it’s usually too late.

    So although Jobs did himself no favors by waiting to begin a conventional course of treatment, if he had the form of pancreatic cancer that you really don’t want to have, he would have been dead a while ago.

  • leigh

    @Doug. Thanks for the clarification on the types of cancer. I used the term “Generally considered” as I knew it wasn’t the usual type and his propects were good, but I certainly lack your heart-wrenching experience with the topic.

    Here’s hoping that Steve is living under no more of a death sentence than the rest of us.

  • ronjamin

    I hate over-baked cliches like “winners leave at the top of their game”. Steve is a young man who has decades of creativity and wisdom to share. I hope to see him as active 20 years from now.

    No one would ever say to Warren Buffett to step down from Berkshire Hathaway just because he’s a robust 77 years old!!!

    This is typical corporate group-think attitude…new is better, old is out.

    Now, in terms of Bill Gates leaving, that might have been the worst thing to happen. If anything, had Bill Gates taken a more active role in the company, Vista might not be the still-born OS that it is.

    This is a global village. We have a tendency to put the village elders out to pasture much too early. It hurts us as a nation.

  • Doug S.

    A few follow-up points, in descending order of Pollyanna-ishness:

    1) I understand why people were alarmed by those photos from the WWDC, but looks can deceive. As an example, I offer an acquaintance whom I see every 3-4 months at local hobby shows; a couple of years ago, he dieted away over 20% of his body weight from one time I we were together to the next. His appearance shocked me — sunken cheeks, eyes seemed wider, his old t-shirts dropping off of his shoulders — and he said some folks came right out and asked him if he was sick. But he felt great, was very upbeat and more energetic than before. It wasn’t cancer, but Nutrisystem and exercise.

    2) Even if he’s still cancer-free, Jobs did have major surgery that messed around with his digestive and endocrine systems. I wouldn’t be surprised if he has routine health maintenance issues that most of us don’t. My best guess is that that’s why he looked sunken at WWDC, and he and Apple know that they could set off a panic if they talk about it too freely.

    3) It’s also possible that Jobs really is very ill, and that Apple figures the best way to deal with it is to sort-of stonewall, controlling the info flow very tightly so that people will have time to get used to the idea of Apple without him. I think that is the best way to handle it for Apple investors, frankly. People who will want to sell will do so over time rather than in a rush. And it gives time for reasonable voices like Leigh’s and Leander’s to point out that things won’t be as bad as all that, so that we can all adjust to it.

  • clicknathan

    Lame. Also, is Cult of Mac not at Wired anymore because of all the typos yuo gyus maek?

  • Justin

    The real underrepresented point made here is the scaling issues Apple is experiencing. They switched the Leopard engineers to the iPhone to make sure it was stable before the launch last year, they’ve admitted their bungling with MobileMe and anyone with a new iPhone can attest to the instability (not a HUGE deal for me at least, but worth noting) of the 2.0 software.

    In the last five years Apple has become an undeniable market force in digital content sales/distribution, phone design/engineering and mobile programming. They are trying to bite into web syncing and better-living-through-the-cloud-pay-service pie.

    Maybe, just maybe, they need an evolving philosophy on how to handle all this in the way we’ve come to expect from Apple. And POSSIBLY, Steve could best help with that from the sidelines, with his handpicked team in the trenches. POSSIBLY.

  • Bill Higgins

    Re:

    > Winners leave when they’re on top, on their own
    > terms. Lesser men slink away after launching Vista.

    “Slink away” to improve and/or save many thousands of lives in developing countries?

    See:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B

    Reality check: operating systems, other software, and gadgets are great, but what Gates is now focused on is far greater.

    - Bill Higgins, Mac/iPhone enthusiast

  • Beast_m

    As everyone said,
    Steve was there when the best desktop computer company was born
    when he left the company was heading downwards
    when he returned, he took them from bankrupt state of closing down to top notch company leading the technology sector of business with unimaginable profits.

    Lets face it, if it was not for Jobs, we won’t see MAC OS X, ipod, iphone, iwork, imac,ibook, ilife, ituens, and everything else that apple is about today.

    I am sure when steve leaves the company will exist, the company kept pushing good products when he was not there including newton and better OS than windows, OS 7-8 . But lets face it…

    Those products were not turn around products, they are good but not right. Since steve came products are the ones we wish in our heads if they could exist, priced at the right price, for the right consumer in the right time. Did any one forget how expensive macs used to be?

    Sure apple will continue after steve, but how? Will they reach bankruptcy again? Will they be just another microsoft? What will happen to the “cult” identity and the quality of apple products once he leaves? there must be a plan.

    On the other hand, I dont see why a lot has to be a problem over his health, he is not old I think he is late 50′s maybe early 60′s. A lot older people run companies than that age

  • Bill

    I would think it is going to be very hard to replace him through a transitional process –

    1 – there is (some) true genius there. That’s hard to replicate. Which leads to the next point….

    2 – as a practical matter, who would/could take on product development at Apple and expect to survive the experience with Steve looking over their shoulder.

    I do not mean the above comment to be critical of Steve. I believe Apple is where it is today because of Steve’s passion and drive to get products “right”. I just question whether there is anyone who can live up to Job’s standards, particularly if he is doing the evaluation.

    3 – That said, I cringe at the thought of beginning a transition process (again). The last time we ended up with Sculley, Spindler and Amelio. It was only the dogged devotion of Apple’s customer base that enabled the company to survive that trifecta fiasco.

  • Jon

    Did it ever occur to you that such a plan may already be in effect, or at least being planned for? In all likelyhood, planning probably started before Jobs was treated for cancer.

    After all, Jobs and Apple are not stupid. This is just the sort of thing that fits in with how Apple does things… by not talking.

  • leigh

    @King, Bill, and everyone else who doesn’t think this is important or that Steve is irreplaceable:

    it may very well be that Steve can’t be replaced, and that will indeed be a sad day when he eventually leaves Apple as that will mark the beginning of the end of one of my favorite companies. that said, the core issue here is this:

    Apple is a publicly traded company. Even if its CEO were a 20 year old tri-athlete in prime condition with an extra set of all the irreplaceable organs and a genetic immunity to sickness in general and cancer in specific, they have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to have a succession plan in place. The dude could still get hit by a bus, killed by terrorists, stuck by lightning, or have a 747 engine fall on his head.

    I as a relatively minor officer in a publicly traded company, have a succession plan in place, and am always actively recruiting “apprentices”. As a co-owner of Apple, I expect no less of Steve Jobs.

  • JoshKnight

    “Winners leave when they’re on top, on their own terms. Lesser men slink away after launching Vista.”

    I love that.

  • owen-b

    And I’m sure they’ve got plans. The thing is, if they reveal those plans everyone screams “OMIGODSTEVE’SLEAVINGSELLSELLSELL!”, which would probably be why we don’t know what those plans are…

  • leigh

    @Bill Higgins: It was a joke. I make fun of Microsoft because, well… it’s easy, and I’m lazy. That said, I totally agree, what Bill is doing with the Bill and Melenda Gates Foundation is far more important that anything he did in Redmond. Further bring Warren into the mix is really just amazing…

    it will be totally amazing to see what they’re able to do when they put their awesome intellect and all those billions to work saving the world

  • Neil Anderson

    Looking forward to seeing Steve lead Apple for many more years.

About the author

Leigh McMullen

Leigh McMullen leads the Advisory Services & Strategy practices for the professional services arm of one of the Big-Five firms. He has written several books that would cure any insomnia you might have, and is an avid Mac junkie.

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