Perils of the Rock Star CEO

The news of Steve Jobs taking a medical leave of absence has rocked the blogosphere and the stock market. First, this shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone who knows anything about cancer, especially the kind he has. Second, it highlights the risk of hiring or developing a rock star CEO. While any executive of Steve Jobs’ stature temporarily or permanently leaving a company is traumatic, I think it could have been different in this case and less “newsworthy”.

Steve Jobs did a masterful job of rescuing Apple from near-certain demise and is clearly a driving force behind the company. There is no doubt he is the “Rock Star” CEO. Others that come to mind are Jack Welch, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, etc.. These three bear mentioning as they set their transition in place early and effectively. Both GE and Microsoft have not been unduly affected by the loss of their Rock Star CEOs. I would suspect Warren Buffett will plan and manage his eventual transition just as well.

In contrast, Steve Jobs has not impressed on his succession planning. He relishes the media and consumer attention, and this may have come back to bite him and Apple. Granted he has health issues and they tend to circumvent the best laid plans. However, what he should have started doing years ago is putting other management team members out there and sharing more of the credit and media focus. He may have been trying, but he didn’t do enough. You can see Apple and its board desperately trying to convince us that Tim Cook is great, and I’m sure he is and will do fine. The problem is they should have been educating us about Tim years ago.

I predict Apple will do fine without Steve Jobs, whether he comes back in June, later, or not at all. They have great product lines, teams and business processes to continue executing. No doubt losing someone of Jobs’ vision is difficult, but nobody is irreplaceable. In fact, having Jobs step away may be the best thing for the company in the long term. No company can succeed with such reliance on one person. It will be a very interesting process to watch unfold.

As an aside, I wish him well and hope he has a speedy recovery.

Let us know your thoughts on rock star CEOs in the comments.

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