Steve Jobs Should Take A Cue From AIG's Cancer-Stricken CEO

Robert Benmosche's forthrightness about his illness is in stark contrast to the Apple chief’s secrecy.
AIG's Robert Benmosche said on Monday he will stay on as the insurer's CEO despite the fact that he continues to battle cancer. Benmosche first acknowledged that he had the disease in October. Steve Jobs and Apple's board should take note of Benmosche's openness about his condition.

Jobs last week said he would take a second medical leave in as many years "so I can focus on my health." He didn't disclose what's ailing him, and his secrecy has led to speculation that he has suffered a recurrence of the pancreatic cancer he revealed in 2004, nine months after the diagnosis, or complications from a 2009 liver transplant he had tried to keep secret.

Or maybe Jobs is suffering an altogether new medical calamity. No one really knows.

While this great CEO's condition is not to be taken lightly, Jobs needs to take a page from Benmosche's open book and inform the public about his health. The right to medical privacy goes only so far if you've accepted the top job at a company with 46,000 employees, hundreds of partners, millions of customers, and investors who have capitalized your operation to the tune of $312 billion.

What happens to Apple and its constituents will to a great extent be determined by what happens with Jobs—he's widely perceived to be that important to the company. If I'm a CIO who's considering being among the first to embrace the iPad as an enterprise computing platform, I'm not spending a cent until I know exactly what's wrong with Jobs and what Apple's plans are if he's unable to return to work.

Almost no one outside of the insurance industry has heard of Benmosche, and he's been at AIG for less than two years, so he could be excused for being less than forthright about his health. Instead, he told the world Monday that "nothing in life is certain" but that he thinks he is strong enough to continue atop AIG while he undergoes "treatment for cancer." There, he said it.

As for Jobs, Apple's shares rise whenever he looks healthy and swoon at the hint of illness. It's possible that no company in history has ever been so closely linked to the fortunes of its CEO as Apple is to Jobs.

Levitt: Apple's approach is correct

Not everyone agrees that Jobs' medical condition should be a matter of public record. Former SEC chairman Arthur Levitt said he thinks Apple's board is handling the situation correctly. "An intelligent investor should know the risks of Jobs having a relapse,” Levitt told Bloomberg BusinessWeek. “For the board to opine on what the extent of the illness is right now I don't think is really necessary.”

In Levitt's view, the stock market is caveat emptor—if you think a company is less than transparent about material matters, then don't buy its stock. There's just one problem with his argument. Investors and other Apple stakeholders would have no reason to believe Jobs is vulnerable to a "relapse" of anything unless he discloses serious conditions in the first place. But Jobs tends towards secrecy.

Contrast Jobs' approach to that of BenmoscheI. Here's an excerpt from his statement Monday:

"The good news is that I feel fine, and I continue to work according to my normal schedule. As for my long-term prognosis—I will have a better idea over the next couple of months of what that will look like as I continue to undergo treatment and my doctors refine their diagnosis. All that said, I remain absolutely committed to my job, to AIG, and to all of our stakeholders."

Steve, I wish you a speedy recovery. But in the meantime, please look to Benmosche as an example of how best to share information about your condition with customers, employees, partners, and investors as you travel what is hopefully the road to wellness.

For further reading: Steve Jobs Should Be Apple's Last Rock Star CEO

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