Apple Computer, American Idol, and Succession

mickyates Business, leadership, Organization Leave a Comment

Steve JobsI really enjoyed this recent post by regular star contributor Wally Bock, especially as I am so “addicted” to all things Apple (if less addicted to all things Simon Cowell!).

Here is Wally’s post:

“Last month, some Apple shareholders tried to get the company to disclose a succession plan. As the Christian Science Monitor reported:

“Apple shareholders rejected a proposal Wednesday that called for the company to disclose a succession plan for its chief executive.”The rejection came a month after Apple CEO Steve Jobs went on an indefinite medical leave for unspecified problems – an absence that could be related to his previous bout with pancreatic cancer or his 2009 liver transplant. Jobs did not attend the meeting, which was led by Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook and general counsel Bruce Sewell.”

For my money, Steve Jobs is the most effective CEO ever at conceiving and driving profit-generating innovation, and if my money were invested in Apple Computer, I’d be interested in learning what comes next. For now, though, the only thing we know for sure is that someday Steve Jobs will not be the CEO of Apple. What then?

Writing in Portfolio, Julian Dailly, Director of Brand Valuation at Interbrand London, suggests how Apple and other companies can make a seamless transition from a charismatic founder to the next CEO. It’s a provocative read even if you agree with me that “seamless transitions” are mostly a matter of luck. But Apple could do worse than emulate the American Idol TV show.

Consider the parallels. Both Apple and American Idol have been fabulously successful and that success has been tied to the vision and style of a single individual.

For Apple, it’s Steve Jobs. For American Idol, it’s Simon Cowell.

Like Apple, American Idol has had an enviable run. According to Wikipedia: “The show was described by rival TV executives as ‘the most impactful show in the history of television.’ It has also become a recognized springboard for launching the career of many artists as bona fide stars” Much of that success was tied to Cowell and his acid commentaries. Here are just two.

“If your lifeguard duties were as good as your singing, a lot of people would be drowning.”

“If you would be singing like this two thousand years ago, people would have stoned you.”

This year, it’s different. Simon is no longer part of the picture. So the people still with the show have done things differently and un-Simon-like. They made changes that made the show better by making it different.

That’s good advice for Apple: When Steve Jobs goes away, don’t try to re-create him, do something different. At American Idol they haven’t come up with “the next Simon Cowell.” Instead, they’ve made that choice unnecessary.

So what should happen when Steve Jobs leaves Apple? Don’t try to recreate the company with a new “Jobs” in the CEO role. Instead, do what American Idol did: something different. It’s a process that’s worked for General Electric (GE) for over one hundred years.

GE’s CEOs generally serve for a long time. Each one keeps select bits of the past while vaporizing other bits held sacred by predecessors. Ralph Cordiner (CEO, 1950 – 1963) thought the computer business was GE’s future. His successor Fred Borch (CEO, 1963 — 1972) sold that business. Reg Jones (CEO, 1972 — 1981) restructured the company. Jack Welch undid most of the restructuring. Now it’s Jeff Immelt’s turn.

Boss’s Bottom Line

In the end, it all boils down to the advice of Linus Pauling. He is the only person to receive two unshared Nobel Prizes. When he was asked what you do after you win the Nobel Prize, his advice was straightforward: “Change fields.”

Read the original post on Wally’s blog.