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Filling Big Shoes

There Are Many Applicable Lessons from Steve Jobs’ Succession Plan


Charlotte Cathro

Charlotte Cathro

Former Apple CEO Steve Jobs passed away in October and left behind him an incredible legacy. He conceived and cultivated a successful and admired company, but a long history of health issues had investors concerned about where the business would be without him.
The company had been tight-lipped about their succession plan, leading to some speculation. The world was shown what Jobs intended for the company when he resigned in August and the plan was officially set in motion.
While a company as successful as Apple needs a plan on the largest of scales, there are some cues that can be taken to benefit all companies in planning for their future.
Jobs founded Apple with his high-school friend, Stephen Wozniak, in 1976, and the two transformed the personal-computer industry. After a disagreement with company executives, Jobs was ousted from Apple in 1985, but returned to take the helm in 1997 as part of a new management team. Upon returning to Apple, Jobs continually expanded the company with new innovations. What was a computer manufacturer became a conglomerate of music, software, and personal electronics. Jobs created a following for his sleek and modern design aesthetic. Keen marketing campaigns surrounded each new product in buzz. His charismatic presentations of new products were touted for their brilliance, and his own image became inseparable from Apple’s. It is this intertwining that makes Jobs an incredibly tough act to follow.
To ensure that Steve Jobs’ vision lived on, the company created Apple University. The university is a training program for Apple executives with high-level courses designed to instill Apple’s most important principles: accountability, perfectionism, simplicity, and secrecy. The project ensures that everyone is on the same page, and allows management to trust that the organization is acting with a collective brain.
Jobs took the project so seriously that he recruited the former dean of Yale University, Joel Podolny, to run it. While not all businesses have the resources to set up such a program, business owners can and should train employees to make smarter decisions independently. An education and training program fosters loyalty and a culture of self-improvement. It doesn’t just prepare them for when you are no longer running the business; building trust will allow you to transition responsibility over time.
When it came time to name a new CEO, Apple was ready. Jobs stepped down in August, and Tim Cook was appointed in his place. Jobs trusted Cook to take the helm for several reasons. First, Cook had a strong relationship with Jobs and considered him a mentor. He has respect for the vision and history of the company, and is not looking to completely revamp it now that he is in charge. He reportedly sent a memo to employees since he took over noting that Apple would not change.
Cook has a strong drive for success, which has gotten him this far in his career. As COO, Cook managed Apple’s enormous supply chain and enabled the company to post impressive profits. His experience will allow him to maintain Apple’s standing as a fierce market competitor. Most importantly, Cook loves Apple and its products.
Cook’s appointment in August was not his first time running the show. He had filled in on several occasions during Jobs’ previous medical leaves and had been in charge of the day-to-day operations of the business as of January. While it may have been Jobs’ continuous illness that required Cook to act as a standin, it served the succession plan well. Investors, analysts, and the public started to know his name, and employees of the company got a taste of what working under Cook would be like.
Field-testing executives allows them to get some comfort in the role, and gives opportunity for feedback. Businesses can begin by including protégés in meetings with major customers and suppliers and allowing them to create a rapport. Acclimating customers to future leaders can also result in fewer losses upon transition.
A succession plan doesn’t need to be a one-for-one replacement in leadership. Jobs had developed a team of advisors with specialties in different areas. This group includes Jony Ive, vice president of design; Scott Forstall, in charge of operating system software; Bob Mansfield, hardware engineering; and Phil Schiller, Apple’s marketing head. It is unknown whether roles within the organization will shift with Jobs gone, but this ‘two heads are better than one’ approach ensures that Cook will have a sounding board for ideas.
To follow the lead of Apple, companies developing succession plans should evaluate what skills are needed for future leadership and fill the gaps, spreading the abilities to supporting roles. Smaller organizations without the resources for multiple executives with different skill sets can retain consultants or send existing staff to targeted training.
Apple has reinvented itself several times over the years, and Jobs prided himself in knowing what the public wanted, even when they didn’t. A future for the company, then, needs to include continuous innovation. The vision for the future should not just be that of survival, but of growth.
In planning beyond Steve Jobs, Apple educated its employees, created a strong corporate culture, established a support team of differing skills, and test-drove their executives. To ensure that a company lives past its president, a succession plan needs to be more than just a decision. The plan needs to be in motion as an ongoing initiative.

Charlotte Cathro is a tax manager with the Holyoke-based CPA firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.; (413) 536-8510; [email protected]