Sure, Apple has plenty of cash and a deep pool of talent, but when the visionary founder leaves, sometimes, even with the best intentions, the company can get into trouble.
You don’t need to read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve to realise that he was a deeply intense man involved at both a macro and micro level. In Isaacson’s book there is example after example of Steve thinking about ‘the next big thing’ but also worrying about seemingly trivial matters. Things like the colour and type of the stone used for the fl our in an Apple store, and the internal design of the circuit board on the original Mac.
Because Isaacson’s book is the first authorised biography, and Steve didn’t have a hand in editing or even reading it during its creation I think it’s safe to assume that, for the most part, Isaacson’s word is the truth.
Before I read the book my position on the question of Apple without Steve was this: I was confident that Apple’s culture and management team were all it needed to keep doing what it does best – create insanely great products.
Now, after reading the book, I’m less sure. There’s just so much that Steve was involved in for me to be able to believe that his absence will not be felt.
During the memorial to Steve that Apple held at its Cupertino campus a week after his death a number of key Apple execs and board members got up to talk on a personal level about their relationship with him. One point that Tim Cook, now CEO of Apple, made was that Steve told him that he didn’t want employees to ask “What would Steve have done?” when he was gone.
But I think that’s missing the point. Asking what Steve would have done isn’t the problem. The big thing that Steve did was make quick decisions based on a core understanding and the relationship between people and products, and then summon his team to make it happen.
Instead of spending months and millions of dollars on customer research Steve would just say, “This is the way it’s going to be done,” and whatever it was would get done. I worry that with Steve gone there will be no one at Apple in the right position to be that guy.
Most of the senior management team have been working with Steve for over 10 years. They knew how he thought and they knew what he liked. But Steve co-created Apple in 1976. And he recreated it when he returned in 1997. Even though Apple is one of the largest publicly held companies, Steve had (and was given by staff and shareholders) an entitlement to run the place. He didn’t work his way up from a junior software engineer to CEO; he built the company.
Now, with his passing there’s no one else in that position at Apple. By all accounts Tim Cook has the respect of the rest of the senior team, and was chosen by Steve to take the reins during his sick leave and then again when he stepped into the role of Chairman.
But even with Steve’s blessing I worry that Tim won’t be able to make the hard decisions like Steve could. And I wonder whether the rest of the executive team respects him enough to keep their ego in check and to work as a cohesive team for the sake of Apple.
As Bob Dylan said in 1964, “The times, they are a-changin’.”