Fixing Steve’s Jobs

The law of universal gravitation would have worked the same way as it is working today even if an apple had not fallen on Newton’s head that winter night, but the world would not have looked at the ‘fruit’ the same way as it is looking today had there been no Steve Jobs. The ‘Apple’ got its meaning redefined after the Reed College dropout named his company, that he founded at the age of 21, after the fruit. Today, after just 35 years, more people in the world are using Apple products like iPods, iPhones, and iPads than they consume an apple on a daily basis.

Unfortunately, the man who the tech world believes the ‘greatest artist ever to redefine technology to be used for entertainment’ has passed away at the age of 56 leaving the entire world in a state of shock. He left with many questions unanswered, both for the world and for Apple, the company he co-founded along with his school time friend Steve Wozniak. When Jobs vacated the top post to be occupied by Tim Cook as CEO of Apple on August 24, industry was not entirely in deep shock with the movement, though little baffled with the words he used in the letter he wrote to the Apple Board and Apple Community. I have always said if there ever came a day when I could no longer meet my duties and expectations as Apple’s CEO, I would be the first to let you know. Unfortunately, that day has come, reads the letter. It was not entirely a shocking news for the industry as Jobs had done this couple of times earlier, in 2004 and 2009, due to health issues. But his words …could no longer meet my duties skipped many a heart beat. His earlier medical leaves and subsequent vacating of the top post had always mentioned when he would resume office. But not this time. However he was expected to be the force behind the scenes, and the technology world and billions of Apple fans around the globe were in a self-consolation mode-Hey, CEO or no CEO, Jobs is there to get the jobs done for them.

On October 5, when Apple announced Jobs’ death, a pall of gloom descended on everyone, including Apple. Many eyebrows were raised, people went for a self-questioning mood-what would happen to Apple; will it remain the same company that gave them the iPods, iPhones, etc; can it bring out similar game-changing products for which they would queue up for days before the launch; would the future Apple products have the same aura around them to make the users feel to be in an ‘elite’ class of tech users? The executive team under the helm of newly appointed CEO Tim Cook have to be warm and ready to answer these and many predicted and unpredicted questions in the future. And these questions are not asked for a single day, these are perennial questions, will be asked again and again, in the absence of Jobs. Starting a company out of a garage and out of immense curiosity to play around computers, to make it the second most valuable company in the world, and even the most valuable company for a brief period surpassing Exxon Mobil, was a feat only Steve Jobs could have achieved. In a media advisory on the death of Jobs, Tim Cook himself wrote, Steve leaves behind a company that only he could have built.

Unending Tasks

In his resignation letter dated August 24, Jobs wrote, I believe Apple’s brightest and most innovative days are ahead of it. It adds up pressure at Cook&Co to bring out better than the best in Apple, yet maintaining the legacy of the iconic Steve Jobs. Undoubtedly, at present Apple is in an enviable position, financially and in terms of its influence in the global technology sector, but the tasks in hand are: Can the company sustain its track record of success without the man who was the company’s guiding influence? Can the company thwart the efforts of its competitors like Google, Samsung, RIM, HTC, etc, who work relentlessly to out-Apple Apple? Can the company still maintain the competitive and superior edge so that its competitors can only dream of trying to have an ‘iProduct killer’ but fal ultimately?

The challenge for Apple is that the Steve Jobs culture is a high-risk endeavor, writes Wharton legal studies and business ethics professor Kevin Werbach in his blog. Apple is more controlling than its competitors, which puts a great deal of pressure on it to produce things that are truly superior. Apple has to hit it out of the park with virtually every major product release. It has done that for years, as has Pixar. However the risk is higher than for companies like Microsoft, Facebook, and Google, which have more ability to refine and improve their offerings over the time, or to leverage the work of partners, he justifies.

Evolving to a Team Approach

So far, Apple has been synonymous with Steve Jobs. Though that would remain the same for millions of Apple fans around the globe for quite some years now, things might not be the same for the company and its business partners. Under Jobs, Apple was often secretive about its products and processes, and most information flowed directly through the CEO. Now that the focus has turned more to a group of top leadership. Among numerous smart moves that Jobs had made during the last two decades, the smartest and most futuristic move would be the management team he built since returning to the company in 1996 after an 11-year ouster. A true visionary that he was, Jobs had nurtured the team in such a way, acknowledging his ever deteriorating health concerns, that he can pass the torch and rest in peace. With the decline in Jobs’ health in recent years, other executives have been taking on more responsibility in a public way. All this has largely helped convince the community that the management is in control and knows what it is doing.

A day before Jobs’ death, on October 4 during Apple’s iPhone 4S launch at its California headquarter, perhaps for the first time, the company showcased its top leadership in a single event. The press event was attended by 6 senior most executives of the firm. CEO Tim Cook was flanked by Eddy Cue, senior vice president of Apple’s internet software and services products; Scott Forstall, senior vice president of iOS, which powers the iPad and iPhone; Philip Schiller, the company’s head of marketing; Jonathan Ive, senior vice president of industrial design; and CFO Peter Oppenheimer. Most of these executives came with Jobs from NeXT, the computer company he started after being pushed out of Apple in 1985.

Besides showcasing the top executives before the press, the new CEO perhaps wanted his team to get some limelight, unlike during Jobs’ era. Perhaps, Cook have already started to feel that with Jobs not there any more, a ‘Jobs-like’ vertical approach is not going to work in long term. In addition to the way the entire team was showcased during the iPhone 4S announcement, Apple’s announcement that it received 1 mn pre-orders in a day for the 4S included a quote from Schiller, company’s head of marketing, rather than the CEO.

However little is expected to change at Apple in the short run. Jobs was just not a visionary himself, rather he wanted to inculcate the culture into the company as well. Though he had always been very futuristic in his approach, perhaps post-2004, when he became aware of his health complications for the first time, he wanted to nurture that talent more vigorously. For example, product roadmaps at Apple are typically set 3-5 years in advance. The industrial design excellence embodied in Apple products is likely to persist. The genius behind Apple’s industrial design is really Jonathan Ive and the industrial design team at Apple is the best in the industry.

But there is no getting around the fact that, as it moves from a company built around one man’s vision to more of a team approach, Apple will have to start doing things differently. And beyond any leadership challenges, the company is also operating in a highly competitive and quickly evolving sector where a number of companies are grappling to take the lead on smartphones, tablets, digital music, and cloud storage initiatives.

Preserving Jobs’ Legacy

When the technology industry refers to Jobs as the greatest artist ever, they are not wrong. He had the eye for details, taste for the perfect, and was never satisfied with anything less than the best. To capture Jobs’s keen eye for the intersection of art, technology, and product design, Apple in recent years began a top-secret internal training program called Apple University. The aim was to create a training program and establish a system that could pick up the slack when Jobs was no longer with the company. Another example of his futuristic view. There has never been an instance in the technology history that a specific training program is designed on a person’s charisma and his approach towards achieving the best, and the aim of the Apple University is to imbibe the culture in future employees of the firm, so that the company never misses the track. To achieve this, in 2008, Jobs hired Joel Podolny, former dean at the Yale School of Management. He is in charge of designing the Apple University that is being developed inside the sprawling campus of Apple at its Cupertino headquarter. Podolny specialized in organizational behavior as well as management. The effort highlights how important it is to maintain Jobs’ ethos at Apple. However it is to be seen whether a training system can truly capture what made Jobs unique. The biggest feat of the icon, whose death certificate describes him as an entrepreneur, was coming up with creative ideas and more importantly, convincing partners, employees, and consumers to buy in.

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