The Half-life of Steve Jobs' Leadership

"Inventories can be managed, but people must be led."

-- H. Ross Perot

There will be many forces at work in the transition from Steve Jobs to a new Apple management. We hope and pray that Mr. Jobs health will improve and that he will lead the company he founded for as long as it pleases him to do so. However, there's also a chance that a transition my be coming in the relatively near future, and that's what I want to address.

First of all, one has to remember that the management structure, as it exists with Mr. Jobs was uniquely designed by Mr. Jobs. In simple terms, Tim Cook handles the procurement and operations side, Peter Oppenheimer manages the money, Scott Forstall handles the iPhone software, Bertrand Serlet handles Mac OS X, Bob Mansfield handles the Mac hardware, Jonathan Ive handles industrial design, Ron Johnson handles retail sales and Philip Schiller is a capable and charming company spokesman as VP of Product Marketing.

Without Steve Jobs at the top, the ostensible future CEO is Tim Cook, but it's not likely that Steve's position can be filled by simply sliding everyone up a notch. For example, if Tim Cook were to do everything Steve Jobs does now, the procurement side would suffer. Few people could replace Mr Cook, someone who had a strong hand in resuscitating the company by getting procurement, inventory and reporting under control after years of mismanagement prior to his arrival.

It's fairly evident that the executive team is experimenting with slight adjustments in duties. In the past, Scott Forstall and Tim Cook have introduced products, but at Macworld 2009, Phil Schiller assumed the entire duties.

One theory about that is that the dearth of hardware introduced at MWSF was a poke in the eye for IDG, according to my colleague Ted Landau. As a result, there was no need for a team of presenters. Yet the challenge of who will be primary spokesperson remains -- it's simply been postponed.

It would be beyond human capability for Tim Cook to do everything he's doing now plus take on all the visionary, ceremonial and negotiating duties that Steve Jobs has. As a result, I think Mr. Cook's role has to be CEO in title, but a behind the scenes CEO who maintains stewardship over the company's operations while others take on an even more public role as the "voice" of Apple.

Listening to Mr. Cook during yesterday's earnings report -- and will someone please get him a glass of Scotch next time to clear his throat? -- I got the feeling that there was a lot of politics involved in his statement, primarily to smooth over investor concerns. It primarily played on wishful thinking. He suggested that everyone at Apple is very capable, and it's business as usual. Here's the quote, tantamount to an Apple credo, taken from Bryan Chaffin's report on Wednesday:

"There is an extraordinary breadth and depth [in our more than] 35,000 employees all wicked smart. And that's in all areas of the company from engineering to marketing, operations and sales and all the rest. In the values of our company extremely well entrenched.

We believe that we're on the face of the earth to make great products and that's not changing. We're constantly focusing on innovating.

We believe in the simple, not the complex. We believe we need to own and control the primary technologies behind the products that we make and participate only in markets where we can make a significant contribution.

We believe in saying no to thousands of projects so that we can focus on the few that are meaningful to us. Deep collaboration and cross pollination to innovate in a way others cannot. We don't settle for anything other than excellence in any group in the company. And we have the self-honesty to admit when we're wrong and the courage to change.

Regardless of who is in what job, those valuings are so embedded in this country that Apple will do extremely well. And I would just reiterate a point Peter made in his opening comments. I strongly believe that Apple is doing the best work in its history."

Those apparently prepared remarks were intended to assuage fears, and they sound good, but they don't specifically address the fact that the loss of Mr. Jobs, at some point, is not just a game of musical chairs. It's serious business to figure out a new distribution of duties that not only preserves Apple's recent great heritage of superb management, but also keeps the public face of Apple in good form.

The Half Life Effect

The radioactive half life of an isotope is the time it takes for half of the atoms to decay. In business, the half life of a great executive is how long it takes after he leaves for a company to start the process of faltering.

The particular conceit, suggested by Mr. Cook above, is that all will be well, and that the company is on solid footing ready to continue business as usual in the short term without Mr. Jobs. In the long term if necessary. But we know from history, that just isn't so. Large successful companies have their comeuppances for many different reasons. General Motors, Chrysler, IBM, and Microsoft are all examples of companies whose glorious future, at one point, seem assured, but is not so certain.

That's not to say Mr. Jobs didn't also make mistakes. The Cube, missing the CD revolution, and the iMac hockey puck mouse are just a few that got by him. But he made up for it with many, many home runs.

So the real question is, in my mind, if and when Mr. Jobs departs, how long can Apple continue to make many more right decisions than bad ones? Steve Jobs was annealed in the furnace of a forced departure by John Sculley from the company he founded. Will men who don't have that corresponding fire in their souls manage the power and authority of Apple equally well?

In my opinion, there is a solution for Apple. We certainly don't need to give up Tim Cook's magical management capability to give a public voice to Apple. It's a gravelly, low key voice anyway. It's less difficult to groom marketing managers who have the fires of Apple within -- who can backfill for Mr. Schiller. Accordingly, I would expect that Apple's board of directors and executive team will eventually figure out that Tim Cook is a behind the scenes CEO kinda guy and that Phil Schiller is the one who can be charming, enthusiastic, and charismatic.

Macworld SF this month was an example of how, given not much to work with, Mr. Schiller can pull off a charming presentation. With great material, he's even better.

Mr. Cook can't have it both ways: superb operations management and the next great leader of Apple. He may have always wanted the CEO position, and chances are he'll get it. But how he parcels out the power, his estimation of his leadership skills, his attention to continued excellence in operations, his wisdom in the best use of the executive team member's authority and talents will crucial to the success of Apple. One thing is sure, it won't be business as usual without Mr. Jobs.