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Steve Jobs. Visionary. Irreplaceable. Succession Plan in Place.

On Wednesday this week the world learned that Steve Jobs has announced his resignation as CEO of Apple. The timing was a surprise, but not the idea that this might be coming: it is well known that Jobs has had health challenges for some time, and had even stepped back from active duties a few times in the […]
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On Wednesday this week the world learned that Steve Jobs has announced his resignation as CEO of Apple. The timing was a surprise, but not the idea that this might be coming: it is well known that Jobs has had health challenges for some time, and had even stepped back from active duties a few times in the recent past.

Steve Jobs’ resignation letter was short, well-crafted, and to the point. Interestingly, it included “As far as my successor goes, I strongly recommend that we execute our succession plan and name Tim Cook as CEO of Apple.” And Apple has gone ahead and done just that – Tim Cook, who previously served as Apple’s Chief Operating Officer, is the new CEO, with Jobs staying with the company as Chairman of the Board.

The technology and business media have been buzzing with commentary about this news from many angles: what Jobs has meant to Apple and the world (Wall Street Journal, PCMag, PCWorld), what this change might mean for Apple going forward (The Economist, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, New York Times, CNET, Washington Post), the potential impact on Apple’s stock price (Wall Street Journal, Investors’s Business Daily, MarketWatch, Reuters), and of course concern for Jobs’ health (Wall Street Journal, International Business Times).  A Wall Street Journal blog post even provides us with a powerful list of “Steve Jobs’ Best Quotes.”

Many also have been comparing Jobs in various ways to the likes of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Howard Hughes, and Walt Disney, and one commenter likened his retirement to that of Michael Jordan from the Bulls (in addition to the video below, see also New York Times, The Globe and Mail, GigaOm, Reuters). Comparisons with such successful giants seems appropriate when you consider the significant impact Jobs has had not just on “technology,” but more specifically across multiple areas including computing, telephony, film, music – few if any have had such wide ranging, innovative, and disruptive impacts.

Some of the commentary has also focused on issues of leadership, succession planning, and talent (e.g., see “Succession Planning Lessons From Steve Jobs” from Information Week.) Ken Auletta, book author and columnist for The New Yorker, gave an interesting interview this morning on CNBC’s “Squawk Box”:

On leadership lessons from Jobs, Auletta noted:

He’s on [the] Mount Rushmore of business life. He’s this just extraordinary figure. One of the things we shouldn’t ignore in looking at him is the importance of failure in his life. By failing and being fired and learning how to be a better executive when he came back and learning how to delegate, but never changing one essential quality which was I insist on what I call perfection.

Later continuing that theme, and speaking to the importance of recruiting and retaining talent, Auletta said:

If you go back to Steve Jobs’ graduation speech, it was 1 minute long. He talked about the lessons he learned. One of the lessons was the importance of failure. By failure he learned how to be a better executive, how to recruit and retain excellent people. And it created more self-confidence in him.

Then following Auletta was Dan Ernst of Hudson Square Research who said of Jobs:

This is his third medical leave. I think the company has done a phenomenal job. Steve Jobs did what a good CEO should do [which] is build a great team around him. There’s a lot of mythology of how important Steve is to every single layer of the product. There’s phenomenal engineers there designing semiconductors, operating systems, marketing programs. This is a very deep company. I met guys on the floor of Apple stores that I would probably recommend to run marketing. Passionate and committed people. I think Apple is on a very firm path for growth. I think that this is going to be a — it won’t be easy, but they will do it.

Later on in the show, the always opinionated Jim Cramer amplified the point about the strong team and talent Apple has, noting the very strong “bench strength” they have developed under Steve Jobs’ leadership. Will some of these people look to leave Apple now, because they were partially working for Apple as part of the “cult of Steve Jobs”? That is difficult to predict – but in Apple’s favor are the facts that Jobs’ health issues have been known for some time now (making a sudden exodus from this news unlikely), and presumably many employees have strong financial incentives to stay as well (vesting of stock, etc.). I would assume most of them love working for such an exciting and successful company.

Not every organization has a Steve Jobs (or even close) at the helm. Nor will most companies realistically see the success that Apple has had in the past decade. But all companies need to be concerned about succession planning – and not just at the highest levels, but for all critical employees. And these days, with top talent at a premium even with unemployment rates high, a much broader range of employees than ever before should be considered important and even critical to retain — but also backed up with succession plans in the event they leave.

And so I ask executives, HR leaders, and – perhaps most of all – line-of-business managers and directors: how comfortable are you with your succession plans for all of your key people? Do you have the Talent Intelligence that drives the knowledge, insight, and understanding you need to help optimize how you attract, hire, manage, develop, and reward your people? After all, the business with the best people wins – Apple I think is a good case in point. You likely have many people that you consider to be highly valuable: perhaps visionary or even irreplaceable. But you can’t proceed on the assumption they will stay in your department, division, or organization forever — now is the time to focus on putting serious succession plans in place, not because of the Jobs announcement, but because now is always the right time to focus on putting serious succession plans in place.

Related Posts
Leadership Development Spans All Key Talent Management Practices
Learning and Talent Management: Succession Planning
Building a Sustainable Leadership Pipeline
In Succession

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