Taking a bite out of Apple (Guest commentary)

Steve Jobs’ departure provides lessons for HR
By Andrea Plotnick
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 10/10/2011

Mention Tim Cook’s name at a dinner party and you’ll likely get a blank stare in return. But he is now one of the world’s most powerful executives, stepping into the shoes vacated by Apple’s former, legendary CEO Steve Jobs.

Cook is responsible for driving the company into the future, inspiring employees to continue to innovate and putting a steady flow of must-have electronics into eager consumers’ hands — all while maintaining the exceptional return shareholders have come to expect from Apple.

It’s never easy for any executive to follow in the footsteps of a successful CEO, especially one with the rock star status of Jobs. There are lessons for us all in the transition at Apple and how it was handled.

And there are a few things all organizations should keep in mind:

Start planning early: This applies to every level of management at an organization, particularly at the top. Long-term and emergency succession planning should be done well before it is ever presumed they will be needed. HR should ensure succession planning makes it onto the agenda in a timely manner — a five-year horizon is ideal.

It’s about the job requirements, not the personality: It’s important to think beyond the leader’s personality. Focusing on finding a successor with the same personality traits as the person in the job will likely lead you down the wrong path.

As well, trying to create buzz by bringing in a big name may not be the best move. While it can and has worked at companies such as Boeing and Ford, a big name from a different industry with different strategic imperatives and a different cultural dynamic is not a sure fit — personality only goes so far. Instead, think about what the organization needs to successfully deliver its strategy, what capabilities are essential and what traits and actions would indicate a good cultural fit.

There may be a market impact with a new leader who does not have the same charisma, but if the individual has been appropriately assessed against the right requirements, it should be a temporary blip.

Develop and raise the profile of others: Make sure other leaders within the organization have visibility and their contributions are publicized both internally and externally. While the leader may be one-of-a-kind, allowing others to share centre stage is important. Otherwise executives settle into a second-place role, defer too much to the leader and their leadership muscles tend to atrophy.

In selecting a future CEO, the first focus should be the board. The board needs to know and develop a level of comfort with all the players that can only come through interaction and appreciation of their accomplishments. Executives need to develop a similar comfort in working with the board.

HR can play an essential role in facilitating this process, not only arranging meet-and-greet sessions but ensuring processes are in place for key executives to have board exposure.

HR can ensure leaders are being developed and groomed internally, with employees, and externally. Having someone who is somewhat known assume the leadership mantel goes a long way towards soothing a jittery market when a transition occurs.

Know when to look outside the organization: When an organization is poised to embark on a major strategic change, it may be perfectly appropriate to look externally for a successor. However, if the strategy remains consistent, it’s usually preferable to look internally for a candidate — it allows for cultural alignment and sends a clear message people are valued and development is taken seriously

Grading Apple on succession planning

Apple gets a positive assessment on several fronts. First, it had a plan in place — it was able to announce a successor to Jobs immediately and avoid extended periods of uncertainty suffered by other companies such as Bank of America.

Second, the new CEO had two trial periods where he was able to prove his mettle and raise his profile.

Third, Apple identified an internal successor, sending a powerful message throughout the organization.

While Cook clearly is accomplished, a potential gap emerges when one focuses on CEO role requirements. A key strategic requirement for Apple is innovation. Yet Cook, by all accounts, is not primarily an innovator. He has defined himself in terms of operations — a keeper of the vision, not the developer of a vision.

While this may be enough in the short-term, with innovations already in the funnel and a well-established vision, the longer term is less clear. Cook will need to work hard to leverage the capabilities of others and stretch his risk-taking comfort zone if he wants to maintain Apple’s same level of innovation.

Finally, it is debatable whether a past CEO staying on as board chair is a good idea. While this move can quell the markets and ensure some stability, it also makes it difficult for a new CEO to make his own way and avoid the perception the chair is still in control. This becomes even more challenging with a dominant personality such as Jobs.

Andrea Plotnick is national expertise director of organizational effectiveness at Hay Group in Toronto. She can be reached at andrea.plotnick@haygroup.com or (416) 815-6359.

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