Few, if any, companies publish succession plans to the extent that Apple is being asked to.
With Apple founder and CEO
Steve Jobs having taken his third medical leave in the last seven years, there
have been numerous questions regarding the company's ability to function should
this or a future illness prove terminal. For every discussion of how Apple owes
its shareholders an explanation of its succession plans, there's been an
equally valid argument that Jobs' personal health is nobody's business but his
own. The situation at Apple presents an almost perfect case study on the
importance of having a clearly identified successor.
I'm hard-pressed to come up
with an example of a manufacturing entity that's been as closely identified
with its founder as Apple is; the only one that comes to mind is Ford Motor
Company. In that case, Henry Ford dominated his company for almost half a
century, to the point that he almost drove it out of business twice. The first
time was due to Ford's insistence on keeping the Model T in production long
after competitors such as Chevrolet had emerged. The second example was during
World War II, when the company's executive dysfunction following the death of
company president Edsel Ford became so apparent that Henry Ford II was granted
a discharge from the U.S. Navy in order to take the reins of the family
business away from his grandfather.
But Apple is not Ford Motor.
For one thing, there's no Edsel or Henry II in the Jobs family to act as a
replacement. For another, the companies are in completely different situations.
Ford Motor during the war years was an integral part of the supply chain that
was keeping the armed forces in airplanes and trucks. Apple, on the other hand,
is strictly about consumer technology. The company's decision last year to
abandon the Xserve underscores the commitment to mobile devices in preference to
Those who claim that Apple
can't survive without Jobs point to the company's decline after his departure
in 1985 and its near collapse in the mid-1990s. The problem with that argument
is that the Apple of the 1980s and 1990s was entirely dependent on the sales of
Macintosh; LaserWriter printers were the only other product line that mattered,
and even those were merely adjuncts to the computers.
The Apple of today is a
completely different enchilada. Against all odds, the company retains a dominant
position in portable music players and mobile phones, and has reinvented tablet
computing in much the same way as the Macintosh's interface reinvented desktop
computing. Apple today is far more diversified than it was in 1985, 1995 or
For another thing, Apple's
executive bench is deeper than it looks; COO Tim Cook is not new to the role of
understudy to Jobs, having filled in during Jobs' first two leaves. It's hard
to tell whether he has the same ability to drive and inspire Apple's designers
and engineers for which Jobs is famous, and that's the part that could prove
tricky. Given that the iPhone 5 and iPad 2 are headed into manufacturing, any
problems with those won't belong to Cook. But if Jobs' medical leave extends
into 2012, Cook will be the one credited with the success or failure of the
devices that follow those models.
One last thing needs to be
said: I don't believe that there's another company that has been asked to
publicize its succession plans in the way some are demanding that Apple do. At
least Tim Cook will have a lot of practice at the top job, if it turns out that
he has to take it over for good.
P. J. Connolly began writing for IT publications in 1997 and has a lengthy track record in both news and reviews. Since then, he's built two test labs from scratch and earned a reputation as the nicest skeptic you'll ever meet. Before taking up journalism, P. J. was an IT manager and consultant in San Francisco with a knack for networking the Apple Macintosh, and his love for technology is exceeded only by his contempt for the flavor of the month. Speaking of which, you can follow P. J. on Twitter at pjc415, or drop him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.