Why the Idea of a Replacement for Steve Jobs is Misguided

Plenty of analysts, pundits, and other self-annointed experts on Apple are predicting everything from lawsuits to the demise of the company, all because Steve Jobs announced he’s taking medical leave for the next few months.

I hope Steve recovers, because health matters far more than anything else. As Steve himself said in his 2005 commencement address at Stanford University:

Almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.

The commentators I’ve seen and heard in the last 24 hours have utterly sickened me. They have no regard for what really matters in life; only a desire to sound important and dramatic. I wonder how they’d feel if they were faced with a confusing and complex medical condition and needed treatment.

The big question everyone is asking is who will replace Steve Jobs. The fundamental problem with that question is it assumes the answer can only be a single person.

Just as Steve Jobs is a visionary with products, I think he’s a visionary with leadership, too. He’s assembled a team of people who are masters at what they do. Should he leave permanently at some point, Apple will need another CEO, but it’s fairly clear who that will be: Tim Cook.

But to assume that the CEO would automatically do the same things as Jobs is absurd. It assumes that the next person will be a clone of him. That’s just like assuming that the next product the company makes should just be an evolution of a past version, with only minor and obvious tweaks.

Apple is publicly known for its attention to design, savvy marketing, popular retail stores, etc. But none of that would matter if the company couldn’t:

  1. Maintain extremely high quality control on the manufacturing process for each of its products.
  2. Maintain a supply chain that keeps inventory on hand down to an average of 1-2 days, and moving quickly.
  3. Negotiate long-term supply contracts for product components like the Flash memory used in the iPod, iPhone and MacBook Air, and displays. That helps the company stay ahead of rivals while keeping costs predictable and insulated from market fluctuations.
  4. Charge high prices or reduce costs. Apple does both. The marketing and design drive consumers wild with desire and make them willing to pay a premium; Cook’s operational savvy keeps costs under control. Thus Apple is a cash-generating machine. Cook has called the company a place that is “entrepreneurial in its nature but with the mother of all balance sheets.” At last count that meant $24.5 billion in cash and no debt.

Cook has a different personality from Jobs, and his strengths are just as important to the company’s success.

But what about the idea that Steve Jobs is the one person who approves or vetoes the company’s product design and strategy, and therefore keeps it from becoming mired in groupthink?

Jonathan Ive has been with Apple since well before Steve Jobs returned to the company, and it was Jobs who recognized his talent and put him in charge of the company’s design team. I think it’s fair to say that Ive, as the person Jobs put in charge of design, has more significant influence over the approval of products than might be apparent to an outsider.

Also, if members of the management team are aware (which I’m sure they are) that groupthink can doom the quality of a product, and that Apple’s current approach has produced so many hits, they’re not likely to suddenly change.

Here’s what Jason Snell had to say about the strengths of Apple’s management team: (via Daring Fireball)

Tim Cook appears to be the operations and management guy, the adult supervision. Jonathan Ive has a similar design taste to Jobs. Phil Schiller actually does a pretty good job as a demo guy — I think most tech companies would love having Phil Schiller be their keynote guy. Jonathan Ive is a brilliant designer — I don’t think he needs to be a CEO or good with a clicker on stage in front of thousands of people.

It’s incredibly naive to look at Apple and assume that it only runs because of Steve Jobs. That’s a fairy tale of incredible proportion. The company runs so well because it has a group of people who have shown they know how to be consistently successful.

Apologies, for this post the comments are closed.