Monday, February 28, 2011

Creating a Deep Bench of Leadership

Fifteen years ago, I recall calling a local stockbroker and asking him to buy Apple stock for me. It was trading at $16+ per share. Since our office was filled with Apple products, I knew how dedicated and passionate the customer base was. The stockbroker laughed. "Apple is a Betamax," I recall him saying, referring to the high quality, Sony forerunner to VHS that never survived.

Apple Computer had been highly successful throughout the 1980s but had foundered in replacing its founding CEO, Steve Jobs, eventually the board hired "Superstar CEO" Gil Amelio. Amelio had led National Semiconductor from a failing company to become a leading computer chip manufacturer. He was a PhD who had invented product and become a business leader. He had become a darling of Wall Street and was seen as an invincible, A Player - well suited to lead many companies and especially one like Apple which National Semiconductor supplied to.

But, Amelio was a dramatic failure. Apple was on the verge of extinction. Why?

It was a botched hire. Amelio had done a fantastic job turning around National Semiconductor. But, the environment of National Semiconductor in which Amelio excelled was a large corporate organizational structure reliant on process and efficiency for success. Amelio knew how to execute, but understood nothing of Apple's culture of innovation. Apple had an environment and culture rooted in entrepreneurial vision and consumer focused innovation. While technically qualified, Amelio became exposed as a cultural misfit over the next year and a half, fired after 500 days.

Fifteen years later, Apple Computer has become the darling of Wall Street under none other than founder Steve Jobs' leadership. Was the founder, an entrepreneur, the only person who could lead Apple back from the brink? No. But, Jobs did eventually work his way back into the CEO role because he, personally, is the entrepreneurial visionary that can drive the organization.

In preparation for Jobs' departure once more, Apple has this time learned from their early mistakes and been preparing. Several potential successors now exist within the Apple leadership team. Initially, Tim Cook, the COO, will take the helm on an interim basis during Jobs' leave of absence. Says Harvard Business School professor David Yoffie, "The company could not thrive if Steve didn't have an extremely talented team around him. But, you can't replace Steve on some levels." Others within Apple note Jobs' creativity, obsession with perfection in product design and function, his management style, and the force of his personality made him unique in Silicon Valley and in business. The consensus was that it would take several people to fill his shoes. As the New York Times reports in "A Deep Bench of Leadership at Apple" in addition to Cook, several other key executives have been groomed and cross trained to prepare for Jobs eventual departure. The key cultural competencies that Apple has focused on with this cadre of leaders is a team that can execute the business plan AND lead breakthrough innovation at the same time.

Steve Jobs' inspirational leadership may be irreplaceable. But, the assessment of the key competencies that make Apple Computer's culture successful is the breakthrough that is leading to the company's and organization's continued success. New products continue to roll out. Wall Street has barely blinked at Jobs' absence. Time will tell. But, it appears the Apple board has done their homework this time around.


  1. Apple senior managers may be ready to fill Jobs' shoe, but he's not quite ready to go. Apple stock jumped this week when Jobs unexpected returned to announce the latest versions of the iPad.

    “We’ve been working on this product for a while and I just didn’t want to miss today,” he said.

    WSJ: Apple's Showman Takes the Stage

    NYTimes: Jobs Returns to Introduce a New iPad

  2. Stay hungry. Stay foolish. -Steve Jobs