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Former Apple Exec: Only A Troika Could Replace Steve Jobs

The iPad maker's ex-HR chief thinks Jobs is irreplaceable as an individual but is confident the company has the bench strength to carry on if its co-founder can't return to work—but Apple also needs to consider external candidates.

Is Steve Jobs so unique that it would take three executives to fill his shoes at Apple? Despite the IT industry's wealth of management talent, that's what the company's former executive VP for human resources claims in a soon-to-be released book that outlines a vision for Apple in the post-Jobs era.

"I am continuously asked what would happen if Steve Jobs left Apple, or as he sometimes put it, if he 'got hit by a bus,'" writes Jay Elliot. "I tell people that Steve is not replaceable as a charismatic, visionary leader of a consumer-product-centric company, but that he can be replaced by a triumvirate to carry on his legacy."

Elliot's book, "The Steve Jobs Way: iLeadership For A New Generation" (Perseus/Vanguard), hits stores March 11. In an excerpt provided to InformationWeek, Elliot asserts that "Apple will have a new CEO but he, or she, will fill only one part of Steve's role."

Jobs is currently on his second medical leave, for undisclosed reasons, though it has been reported that he's receiving treatment at the Stanford Cancer Center. COO Tim Cook is running the company in the interim, and Elliot thinks he's the most likely successor to Jobs, but only in title.

"Timothy Cook is clearly the leading contender to take the reins of the company, as he has now done; he has proven himself in this role since he has already kept all the separate pieces functioning during Steve's absences," writes Elliot.

But Elliot, who was also once CEO of healthcare IT company New Health Systems and now runs Nuvel, a developer of emergency response apps for the iPhone and other platforms, thinks Cook doesn't bring the whole package in terms of creativity and vision.

Fortunately for the company's customers, shareholders, and employees, Apple's got the necessary bench strength, according to Elliot. "[Senior VP for Industrial Design] Jonathan Ive, the modest Brit who breathed life into the designs of the iMac, iPod and iPad, will continue to dream up designs for products everyone wants to use and own. [Senior VP for Worldwide Marketing] Phil Schiller will continue to dream up product concepts, laying the path for the future of technology," writes Elliot.

In other words, Elliot thinks Apple is in good shape if Jobs is unable to return to work, even if Jobs as an individual is truly irreplaceable—which he may well be.

The common thread through Apple's product lines, from the first Mac to the upcoming iPad 2, are interfaces that manifest Jobs' belief that computing should be intuitive and that the user should control the machine, not vice versa. That vision informed the Mac, the first mass market PC with a point-and-click interface, and its presence is just as strong in the touch screens that control the iPhone and iPad. The latter is turning out to be Apple's most disruptive innovation to date.

But, to counter Elliot for a moment, all that does not mean Apple's board should throw its hands up and surrender to the notion that there is no single individual out there who can guide Apple through its next phase of development. The tech industry is full of managerial whizzes with long track records of overseeing innovation, executing to plan, and, as they say, adding shareholder value.

Eric Schmidt, who will step down as Google's CEO on April 4 and who is a former Apple board member, is surely worth a call to in the event Jobs' position becomes vacant. It's also likely Oracle co-president and former HP CEO Mark Hurd will at some point wish to resume his career as a chief executive officer, and IBM is full of execs, such as hardware chief Rod Adkins and software leader Steve Mills, who are running billion dollar business units that are bigger than most companies.

If Jobs can't continue, Apple needs to consider all its options—externally and internally.

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