Like Pixar, Apple Will Continue to Thrive Without Jobs as CEO [Opinion]



Oftentimes the most useful clues about the future come from the past. Few questions are as important to ask as, What happened last time?

When attempting to decipher the changes that Steve Jobs’ transition away from leading Apple will bring, it’s essential to examine a surprisingly analogous case: Pixar.

Just as at Apple, Jobs served as CEO of the animation studio (and onetime computer hardware maker). When he arrived things were not going well and but for him the company would not have survived.

In its early years, Jobs took a direct role in Pixar’s business life and corporate method (but never in creating the movies), fighting off adversaries and serving as a public face for the company.

To this day, you would be hard pressed to take a tour of Pixar’s Emeryville headquarters (closed to the public) and not hear Jobs mentioned by the guide. He picked the doorknobs for the place.

(In a post published yesterday, Quentin Hardy of Forbes recalls a 1996 phone call he got from Jobs to boost coverage of Pixar’s earnings.)

But as his role as “iCEO” of Apple grew, Jobs delegated more and more day-to-day responsibility at Pixar, stepping in whenever necessary.

And then Bob Iger called.

Pixar merged with The Walt Disney Company in 2006 and Jobs took his seat on the Disney board as the company’s largest individual shareholder. Many suggested he would make a play for complete control of Disney. He didn’t.

Instead, he took on an even more detached role, leaving Pixar in the hands of creative spark John Lasseter and president Ed Catmull, whom he once described to TIME as a ‘babe in the woods’ who needed to be ‘turned into a businessman’ by him.

Since then, Jobs has provided specific leadership on a few select occasions. For example, he provided valuable insights into retail that helped Disney’s transform their once-lackluster stores. But he wasn’t responsible for implementing the redesign plans.

No one today would argue against Pixar being able to survive in a post-Jobs era.

But yesterday’s announcement is not the beginning of that era at Apple. While taking pressure off regarding succession, it changes little immediately compared to the past few months, during which Tim Cook has been overseeing day-to-day operations as acting CEO.

Pronouncements about Steve ‘beginning his ride into the sunset of history’ and being “too sick to continue working” are unwarranted sensationalism. (Sorry, Lonnie and Leander.) The most well-informed sources suggest Jobs’ function as Apple’s chairman will be much more hands-on than his post-merger role at Pixar, and I am optimistic.

But, ultimately, what matters is not how long the transition takes, but that the culture he put in place—of “good enough” never being good enough—continue. That the people leading the company stay true to it, respect it, and build on it. I believe they will.

Exactly like at Pixar.

Mike Bastoli is the author of The Pixar Blog, named by The New York Times as the “definitive unofficial chronicler” of the studio.

  • Don Pope

    Not exactly an (ahem…) Apples to Apples comparison.
    At Apple, Jobs was the creative force as well as the business leader.
    At Pixar he was only involved in the business side of things.

  • carlospacheco74

    I wouldn’t call Cars or Cars 2 “thriving”, they made money but those movies are nowhere close to previous Pixar classics. 

  • Tcrowns

    I think John Ive is often way overlooked in terms of Apple’s success. I would argue that  Steve saw in him, early on someone with the same vision and aesthetic as himself. Ive hand is in as much as Steve’s in the iMac,iPod,iPhone,iPad are as much his as Steve’s. Steve strikes me much more as an enabler and fine tuner as well as seeing where the trend is going before everyone else which was the case with the first Apple computer and Woz.

  • Hilton979

    Do we need endless “Apple will be okay!” stories?  Overdoing those stories does not strike me as confidence. 

  • Tom McGrath

    Basically, when Steve came back to Apple in 1997, he found Ive in the design department, but he wasn’t head of design. Seeing what Ive could do, Steve quickly promoted him, and they went and produced the iMac, which saved Apple. That’s how important he is.

  • prof_peabody

    Indeed.  Pixar has lost it’s way of late.  It remains to be seen whether they will come back.  If this is a parallel with Apple, it kind of says that in five years or so, Apple will be making turkey like products simply for the money (and then maybe come back again).  

  • antikewl

    One bad movie and they’ve “lost their way”? Yes, Cars 2 was terrible, but Brave appears incredibly promising.

  • Juan Ignacio Lacueva

    When people mention that the previous (1985) leave of Jobs almost made Apple disappear they forget that he WAS FIRED because the management was evidently stupid not only to fire him but not to follow his way of doing things. This time he is the one stepping down and the people left managing Apple will all try to continue to do things the way Steve did.