Apple is changing with Steven Jobs stepping down from his current CEO role to become Chairman of the Board. In doing so, he presents Apple with a challenge and one that all companies have to face. How do you replace the company’s founder and still maintain the same or similar success? To address this eternal management question, I think that we can draw some lessons from Niccolo Machiavelli. He wrote at length in his two classic books the Prince and the Discourses about the founding, reforming, and fall of regimes. In his teachings, we can find lessons for Apple as it struggles with its future.
After Jobs, Apple will fail for three main reasons and they all have to do with central problems of management.
- Steven Jobs as Chairman of the Board leaves no room for a successor. What would or can a successor do? Where do they begin and how do they disagree with the vision that is Apple if that is what is required to save Apple? In a religion or a philosophy, one simply reinterprets the visionary’s teachings for the new age. In business, however, this is a recipe for disaster as new competitors, but more importantly, new markets and ideas emerge. As Machiavelli wrote in the Discourses (I, 9) a state will not endure for long if it relies on one individual but requires many to sustain it. Yet, are the many in place to sustain what Jobs has created and can they stay focused on the Apple vision without Jobs at the helm? The question is whether Jobs has sufficiently prepared the organisation to transition away from his leadership. Has he built a company that can live without him without stifling the change that needs to happen?
- The second problem is that of a successor who has to lead the company and change its ways even as it sustains those or similar ways. Here is one of the eternal challenges for any new manager or CEO. How do you retain the loyalty of the old guard while rewarding the new guard who follows your thinking and the way you want the company to go? Many will be around but are they there to sustain it in your way or in the way they believe it should be done? The many that are left to maintain must share the same vision for what is to follow. Yet, this raises the challenge of succession for those who have followed Jobs. It is one thing to subsume your ego when following someone like Steven Jobs but something quite different to do the same for his successor.
- The third challenge is harnessing future changes in current activities. At the heart of Apple is an idea and ideas are difficult to sustain. The idea may remain eternal, but how it is applied changes. In this we see, as Machiavelli discussed in Chapter 25 of the Prince, that Apple’s advantage is precarious. As it attempts to cement its position within media and manufacturing through its lifestyle devices, it faces an eternal problem. What gives it advantage today will create the fixed cost of its future. In other words, it has to make a bet about its future today. As such, it cannot retain its flexibility for innovation and its ability to adapt and cater to the popular cultural market. As that market matures, as all markets do, can its model sustain itself?
So what will have to happen? To survive, Apple has to become something else. Therein lies *the* management challenge: how do you reposition a successful company to shift from what was successful to what needs to be successful. The answer, though, is not more Apple because that would be trying to reinterpret the visionary’s teachings. The company has to change and find a new path. The new path may be enough for today; will it be enough for the future?
How does Apple change from what it is to what it needs to be? Is the Apple model simply unsustainable in the long-term because it relies upon Jobs? If so, what is the next step? Going from a founder to a maintainer can happen in a political regime where stability is desired. In a business environment, however, stability can mean the competition catches up.
So what does Apple need to do? Someone is needed who can reform Apple and change it to what it needs to become. It needs to agree internally that it has to change. In other words, it has to understand what Apple is now and what Apple needs to become. If someone arrives who wants to do more of the same, Apple’s demise will be faster. Instead, it has to decide where its future will be decided. As the Steven Jobs era is over, he must understand, in his new role, that the only way to save that legacy (and thereby bring the company forward) is to treat the company as “the next big thing” and allow Apple to become something different from what it is today.
Update: The passing of Steven Jobs means that Apple’s problems become more explicit. The difference, though, is that with his passing there is no turning back from their course. In that sense, Apple is now “free” to chart its path without having to reconcile its path to Jobs’ view from the sidelines. As with the founding father of any state, their passing shifts the emphasis from the founding to the maintaining and the defending of the vision. How his successors do that will be the “next big thing” for Apple.