5 Succession Planning Lessons From Steve Jobs

Leadership guru Carmine Gallo offers tips from the Apple CEO transition that your enterprise would be wise to learn.

Robert Strohmeyer, Contributor

August 26, 2011

6 Min Read

10 Key Steve Jobs Moments and Innovations

10 Key Steve Jobs Moments and Innovations

10 Key Steve Jobs Moments and Innovations (click image for larger view and for slideshow)

As the high-profile CEO of what many regard as America's--if not the world's--most dynamic tech company, Steve Jobs has influenced more than just computer design during his storied career. His idiosyncratic leadership style, hyperbolic presentations, and fiercely hands-on management approach have inspired the envy of executives and the fear of more than a few employees and competitors. Even as he steps down from the helm at the company he founded, he sets an example for those who would aspire to his level of leadership.

Author Carmine Gallo has followed Jobs' career closely over the years, and penned two popular books, The Innovation Secrets of Steve Jobs and The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs, explaining how Jobs' leadership and management practices have made Apple the world's most valuable company. InformationWeek.com caught up with Gallo the day after Jobs announced his departure as Apple CEO to find out what insight enterprise execs can glean from Jobs' handling of this transition. Here are Carmine Gallo's five lessons from Steve Jobs' succession at Apple.

Focus on the customer, client, user experience. "Above everything else, Steve Jobs really understands his customer," said Gallo. Throughout his terms as CEO of Apple, Jobs has bucked conventional wisdom in the industry and eschewed the demands and expectations of the industry--and sometimes even the most vocal consumers--to bring the best end-user experience, as he understood it at the time--to market.

"When Jobs announced 99-cent music downloads, a lot of people thought it was crazy, because people were used to downloading music online for free," remarked Gallo. At the same time, the music industry balked at what it perceived as a rock-bottom price per song. "He stuck to his guns, and he was right." To Gallo, Jobs' apparent stubbornness is an outcropping of his deep convictions about user experience. "Users don't always know what they want," Gallo said. "Steve Jobs does, and he gives them what they want."

Jobs displayed the same mentality in executing his departure from Apple, enforcing his trademark secrecy and weathering anger from the investment community and Apple customers over his refusal to disclose many details about his health condition. Yet he consistently pursued his vision of user experience at Apple until the moment of his resignation. Ultimately, said Gallo, that deep focus on the user will be his legacy.

Build a culture that transcends your leadership. Steve Jobs has developed such a cult following that he can seem impossible to replace. But in Gallo's view, Jobs has done a remarkable job of planning for his own succession by building a management team and company culture that embrace his vision for the company and the technologies it creates.

"He surrounded himself with people who share his passion for design, user experience, and excellence," said Gallo. "He built a culture within the company that puts the user first." This move is critical to Apple's future success after Jobs steps down, and we'll soon see how well Jobs has done at selecting and training lieutenants who can carry the company forward. But for Gallo, the message to other leaders at all levels of business is clear: Great leaders build companies that can excel without them.

Control the message, stay consistent. Apple has developed a reputation for extreme secrecy, and has taken more than a little heat for it at times. Every Apple product launch is preceded by months of rumors, about which the company refuses to comment. Steve Jobs' succession plans have been no exception, handled with the same tight-lipped secrecy as the launch of a new Mac.

Of course, as with any anticipated Apple announcement, speculation and rumor have abounded, and most analysts predicted Tim Cook would emerge as the company's leader. But Jobs and company remained silent on the matter publicly, rolling out the transition of power with the kind of terse messaging that might accompany a new iPod announcement.

Said Gallo, "Very few leaders really understand the extent to which they can control the message, so too often you have the CEO saying one thing, the PR department saying another, and managers within the company contradicting all of that." Leaders at every level need to reign in their words and get clear about their messaging for the good of the company, said Gallo.

"I don't think it's necessary to be so secretive," Gallo said of Jobs' characteristic stealth. "But it's absolutely critical to control the message. When Apple got the Beatles on iTunes, the whole front page of their website was just a picture of the Beatles and the words, 'The Beatles. Now on iTunes.' Steve Jobs used the same kind of simple language in his resignation. He stuck to the central message he wanted to communicate."

Transition proactively. Gallo observes that, when we look back, we see that Steve Jobs has been gradually handing off power and public exposure to other key personalities within Apple since news of his health woes first surfaced. "I noticed that, really, Tim Cook began doing a lot of the presentations for new product announcements. Phil Schiller and Jonathan Ive stepped into the limelight more," Gallo said.

While the media cameras at any given product launch remained focused on Jobs, Jobs began presenting the other personalities behind Apple in a more concerted way, acclimating the company, its customers, and the media to the look and feel of an Apple product launch sans Steve Jobs. Gallo is confident that Apple's new leaders now have ample preparation to lead the company forward.

Choose people who can take over your duties, not your personality. It's become hard to imagine anyone but Steve Jobs leading Apple, but that perception likely doesn't match reality, according to Gallo. "There's no better pitch man than Steve Jobs," Gallo said. "But Steve has done a great job of assembling a management team that can lead the company in a way that's consistent with his vision."

Pointing to the design aesthetic of Jonathan Ive and Tim Cook's apparent sympatico with Jobs' laser-like focus on user experience, Gallo sees the leadership traits of Steve Jobs distributed throughout the company's new leadership, rather than packed into the personality of a Steve Jobs imposter. "I think he's done as good a job as he can do at choosing people who can take over his duties," said Gallo. "But there's nobody else like Steve Jobs."

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