OK, in outward appearance they’re nothing like each other. One’s tall and lanky, the other was short and stocky. One has that trademark Californian drawl, the other was always trying to cover up his native Corsican accent. But despite all this and the two centuries that separate them, there’s still a lot of Napoleon Bonaparte in Apple CEO, Steve Jobs.
That’s not a criticism of course. Before Napoleon made a major miscalculation about the Russian weather he’d built an empire that spanned most of Europe and much of this was down to his own personal leadership on the battlefield and at the conference table. But his fall from grace and incarceration on an obscure mid-Atlantic island shows just how badly things can go wrong if the one at the top takes on too much responsibility.
Back in the 21st century, shareholders in Apple are eyeing the lessons of history with a degree of nervousness. Despite continuing reports of Steve Jobs’ ill health the board of the tech giant is continually reluctant to publish any form of concrete succession plan that might put fears about the future to rest. But do they perhaps have some ‘master plan’ behind what increasingly looks like dithering, confusion or the straightforward refusal by Jobs to let go the reins of power?
So what’s the view of the academics that teach and review effective leadership for a living at the world’s top business schools? “The company almost certainly has a replacement in mind,” says Professor Marc Buelens, who specialises in leadership at the Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School, “but it’s possible that they don’t want to dilute the Steve Jobs ‘aura’ that serves them so well. Jobs has a huge influence on Apple, but I think it’s mainly external. He’s the showman, but there’s obviously already a highly talented team operating behind him.”
According to Buelens what Apple should be doing is issuing some sort of statement that, while Jobs can never really be replaced, the culture he has instilled in the company will live on under any circumstances. This would, in effect be a ‘don’t worry’ signal to the market. “Ikea is a good example of a company that will stay the same even after the founder has gone,” he says. “The corporate structure and ethos is so strong that it will endure no matter what. It’s not about who the leader is.”
However for this to be truly effective, Jobs would have to deliver the message himself. And whether that’s going to happen any time soon is certainly open to debate.
The real solution to the challenge of replacing Jobs may lie in a change of thinking: in coming to see the Jobs-shaped hole as something to be filled, not by one individual, but by a team. “In order for Apple to make up for losing Steve, they may have to stop thinking about how one individual can replace him and start thinking about hiring multiple people to fill the gap,” says Buelens.” Steve’s forte is marketing – so they may have to think about strengthening their whole marketing team if he goes. One person may not be enough.”
Although the spotlight might be falling on Apple at the moment, it seems that their problem is an all too common one, even among some of the world’s most successful companies. “There’s a general acceptance in HR circles that what businesses now need is a combination of both internal and external market mapping and talent pipelining to create ‘total workforce planning’,” says Paul Daley, a director at talent management specialists, Ochre House. “But few, if any businesses, have as yet managed to turn this ideal into a reality. In too many instances the people-planning exercise is still not taken as seriously as it should be.”
As Apple may find to its cost if it doesn’t take the right action soon.