Apple's Leadership: A Lesson In Thinking Different

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Leadership is what defines great companies. This year, I'm going to take a look a look at some of the most influential companies in tech and look at how their leadership has impacted their growth and what it tells us about their future.

This time around, it's Apple's turn. While the company value under Tim Cook has increased markedly, there are signs his leadership is more about management than vision.

For a company that's only a little over 40 years old, Apple has had a reasonably steady leadership other than the period during in the mid 1980s to mid 1990s when there was a revolving door in the executive suite.

After being founded by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, Apple hired Michael Scott who ran the company from 1977 to 1981. After Scott came Mike Markkula, an early investor in Apple and he was followed by John Sculley - the main who the board sided with in 1985 to kick Steve Jobs to curb after they clashed repeatedly.

Sculley, who left PepsiCo after Steve job's famously asked him "Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?", stayed in the job for a decade before being ousted in favour of Michael Spindler and then Gil Amelio.

That brings us to 1997 when Steve Jobs returned. He remained in the role until he took a medical leave of absence in 2011 for treatment for the pancreatic cancer that eventually claimed his life.

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When Jobs returned to Apple, he was faced with a burgeoning product portfolio that was confusing to the market. There were some interesting products there - notably the MessagePad running the Newton operating system - as well as a bunch of Macs running the ageing MacOS 9. Jobs famously drew a grid on a whiteboard wth four squares with desktop and laptop on one axis and pro and consumer on the other. Any product that didn't clearly fall into one of the four squares was cut. That left a range of desktop and laptop computers.

He also found a kindred spirit in Jony Ive, the industrial designer behind almost every major Apple product of the last 20 years, who was able to create the computers of Steve Jobs' vision.

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The transition from Steve Jobs' leadership to Tim Cook was Apple's first orderly leadership transition. This wasn't just because Apple had time to plan the shift but also because the values Jobs', as the founder and spiritual as well as actual leader, documented and institutionalised at the company. Apple's philosophy about product design, service, culture and values are inculcated through a formal program delivered at the Apple University.

So, even though Steve Jobs passed away in 2011, the Apple Univeristy is a way for the company to ensure its future leaders understand the Apple way of doing things. It's a part of the company's long term succession planning. When Tim Cook eventually steps aside, it's a fair bet the person that takes over the CEO's mantle will be a long-term company insider who understands Apple's values.

What lessons can we learn?

1. Great leaders surround themselves with great people: The second stage of Steve Jobs' leadership is marked by his partnership with Jony Ive. Ive isn't just a good designer. He is someone who was able to communicate with Jobs and helped him bring his vision to life.

And even Tim Cook, who as an operations guru seemed an interesting choice to replace he charismatic and creative Jobs, was an expert in his field and a great person to steward the company through the next phase of its growth.

2. Succession planning matters: Every CEO knows that, eventually, they will be replaced. That can happen voluntarily or in more unpredictable circumstances. Apple has suffered both scenarios through its history. But the last two transitions - Jobs' return in 1997 and Cook's appointment in 2011 - were both orderly. Previous appointments were chaotic and resulted in the company almost folding before Jobs returned.

That succession planning is still continuing. No-one, except perhaps Tim Cook, knows when the next Apple CEO will be appointed. But by creating a way for company values to be institutionalised through Apple Univeristy, Apple has a way of ensuring the values that give the company life will be instilled in its senior management and employees.

3. Leadership is about more than management: There's no doubt Tim Cook is an outstanding executive. During his stewardship of Apple, the company's value has increased massively, delivering regular dividends to shareholders and revenues have been on an upward trajectory, save for a recent blip. Cook is a great manager. But the jury is still out on whether he is the sort of leader that will take risks in the same way as Jobs. When the iPod nano was released it resulted in Apple's biggest selling product, the iPod mini, being cut. I'm not yet convinced Cook would take such decision if he had to cut a successful product to make way for a new one.

Today, Apple's product range is now more cluttered and confusing than ever before. The choice between a MacBook, MacBook Air and MacBook Pro is challenging for many customers. And picking the iPad, iPad Air and iPad Pro is also tricky. I suspect that Steve Job would have killed one, or perhaps two, of the three options in each of the ranges.

Jobs would have led the market to rationalise the product range; Cook is managing things differently.


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