When people think of Apple, in addition to thinking of now-iconic products like the iPhone, iMac and iPad, they think of Steve Jobs, standing on a stage in his ubiquitous black turtleneck and jeans unveiling the latest in a string of innovative products from the company he co-founded in 1976.
On Wednesday, Jobs announced his resignation as CEO, ending a 14-year run that brought the company back from the brink of bankruptcy and reshaped the personal technology industry. Although Jobs, who has been on medical leave since January, will remain as chairman of the board, Apple chief operating officer Tim Cook will take over the day-to-day running of the company — and the daunting task of becoming the new face of Apple.
“There are few companies where the top person has had as much of an impact [as Jobs has had] at Apple,” Wharton management professor Michael Useem told Knowledge at Wharton for a 2009 story about Apple’s succession planning strategy.
But Apple’s success is due to more than Jobs alone, says Wharton operations and information management professor Eric Clemons. “Apple leadership has been brilliant,” he notes. “The team, clearly led by Jobs, but clearly more than Jobs alone, has become the best technology style house in the world. We pay a premium for Apple products because of how they look and how they feel foremost, and then how easy they are to use and to integrate into the rest of our technology and into our lives.”
Among Jobs’s biggest strengths were the ability to determine what the customer wanted and the will to force through “bold decisions that ultimately proved to be correct,” Clemons says. “In some ways he was indispensible. But he was never the whole story.”
Cook, who joined Apple in 1998 after stints at Compaq and IBM, also ran Apple during Jobs’s previous medical leaves. As COO, he oversaw the launch of Apple’s online store, fine-tuned its manufacturing process and revamped its customer support arm. Although Cook has appeared at least once in Jobs’s trademark black turtleneck and jeans, Wharton management professor Peter Cappelli says it would be a mistake for him to adopt a leadership style that copies Jobs. “A copy of anyone is going to come off looking bad. It will never be as good as the original, and people will spend their time focusing on the differences,” Cappelli notes. “I think [Cook] should be himself.”
But when it comes to Apple’s business strategy, Cappelli says it would be unwise to depart in any significant way from the path set under Jobs. “I think a ‘steady as she goes’ approach is a good idea, and also about the only option at this point.”
Apple shares fell 7% when news of Jobs’s departure broke Wednesday night, but the drop had narrowed to 2% by this morning. Most analysts expected the company to remain strong in the post-Jobs era, although Deutsche Bank cautioned that “risk is more likely to be centered around Apple’s three-to five-plus year product plans if/when Jobs permanently departs,” the Wall Street Journal reported.
And JMP analysts put a rare “hold” rating on the stock, noting that “it is not immediately evident to us how Apple replaces the irreplaceable and we are maintaining our neutral stance on the stock until it becomes clear — either that innovation and operational efficiencies will continue unabated under new management or that they are breaking down.”
According to Clemons, Cook must emphasize that, although Jobs is no longer at the helm, the design and strategic teams behind Apple’s success will remain intact. He says Cook could also buy back stock if the price drops temporarily. “The fundamentals of Apple as the premier high-tech design house and the premier integrated consumer technology company have not altered.”
For more on the evolution of Jobs’s career at Apple, see:
Job-less: Steve Jobs’s Succession Plan Should Be a Top Priority for Apple
The Succession Question at Tech Firms: When’s the Right Time to Go?