What If Steve Jobs Doesnít Come Back to Work?
By Saul Hansell
We donít know whatís wrong with Steven P. Jobs, Appleís chief executive. But itís got to be serious. You donít take a six-month leave of absence, as he is, just because youíve got a stomachache.
So that raises the question, for investors and customers, about whether Appleís amazing record of innovation and financial success are at risk while Mr. Jobs is on leave ó and even more so if he never returns.
The answers in each of those two scenarios are very different.
In the short run, Apple is on a roll. It refreshed its notebook line last fall with a new technology. The iPhone has a lot of momentum, and we can assume work is well under way for a third hardware version and a stream of software updates.
There are several gaps in its product line. In the face of a serious recession, will the company compete harder to sell computers that cost less than $1,000? (Yes, there is a $600 Mac Mini, but itís certainly not been a priority.) And can Apple develop the Apple TV product to have a stronger play in the living room?
But itís not clear that Mr. Jobs had any interest in taking action on any of these questions. And putting them off may not derail Apple, even if it misses out on some potential sales.
Also, here is a key line from the e-mail Mr. Jobs sent to Apple employees: ďAs CEO, I plan to remain involved in major strategic decisions while I am out.Ē So, assuming his health allows, Mr. Jobs will still keep his hand on the tiller.
But the risk to Apple is far higher if we imagine the grim possibility that Steve Jobs is unable to return to work. Iím not saying that because there is any shortage of good people at Apple. The companyís top management ranks are filled with some very skilled executives, including Tim Cook, the companyís chief operating officer, who will step in for Mr. Jobs while he is on leave.
But the essence of Steve Jobs ó the obsessive visionary who involves himself in the smallest details of Appleís products and advertising ó has fostered what is in effect a corporate operating system that will need to be completely upgraded whenever a successor is named.
After all, however talented the executives at Apple, one skill they all need is an understanding of how to work with, and when appropriate, defer to, the whims of Steve Jobs.
Itís almost impossible to imagine the next chief executive of Apple having the same sort of autocratic and impulsive personality. Thatís not the style of the people who work there. (Thereís only one queen in the hive.) And what outsider coming into the top job of a company doing as well as Apple would have the guts to be so strong-willed and independent?
Of course, Appleís board should hardly look for a Steve Jobs clone if it needs to fill his chair. Executed with less than unnatural perfection, anyone trying to emulate the Jobs style risks being a bullying buffoon. I even wonder if some of the obsessions and paranoias that are part of Mr. Jobsís worldview always work to Appleís benefit.
Steve Jobs can be replaced, even if he canít be duplicated. There are lots of ways to run successful and innovative companies. And Apple couldnít be in better shape, financially or in its public image, to withstand a change.
But the inevitable process of reworking the entire corporate operating system, changing the culture of how decisions get made and how executives relate to each other, entails enough risk that investors and customers are right to wonder whether Apple after Steve Jobs may lose its way.