Boy, talk about three companies in vastly different positions in their life cycles. Apple is finishing a rebirth, Google is reaching maturity, and Microsoft seems to be dropping into old age. Each company faces unique challenges. Apple needs a life after its CEO leaves, Google needs its CEO to do his nanny job better, and Microsoft desperately needs a rebirth so it seems trendy again.
It is doubtful that any of the existing CEOs for any of these firms will be in their current role by the end of the decade, suggesting that each should be thinking about how they leave their companies. Let's take this last post of 2009 and discuss what I think each of the CEOs should be focusing on for their end game.
Apple: Life After Jobs
Think for a moment, of all of the firms you know. Have any of them, when a founder left, done anything but decline? I can think of one -- IBM when Thomas Watson handed off to his son Thomas Watson Jr. (one of the 100 most influential people last century), who then took the firm to its greatest heights. I doubt the Google founders even remember this, it was so long ago.
CEOs have a nasty history of seeming to assure that those that come after them don't do as well. It is almost as if they want to relish, in their retirement, the fact that their firms are struggling without them. For most companies, this is troubling. For a firm as dependent as Apple is on Steve Jobs, this could be catastrophic. Simply reading and understanding two books, "The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs" and "Inside Steve's Brain" would help the poor sap who tries to follow in Steve's footsteps a lot, but nothing could replace Steve as a mentor. (I think everyone in management should read these two books, and one other, "True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society"). But finding someone to hand off to is likely critical for Steve Jobs' future. He also clearly needs to explore a lower stress lifestyle if he wants a longer one. He could even consider his children to back him up. One is old enough and, with the proper help and support (including from their father), he might be able to create another IBM-like moment.
His challenge, should he decide to accept it, and it is clearly his choice, is to see if he can be bigger than the job and realize that if he creates a strong succession, it will stand as partial testament to his being able to do something few others have.
Google: The Best-Paid Super Nanny
It is my view that Microsoft was largely destroyed by a now departed COO who made some horrible decisions in the '90s and set the company up for its later fall from grace. At Microsoft, the COO, until the founders matured, was the equivalent of the adult in a company of kids. At Apple, initially with folks like John Scully, it was the CEO. This is something Google has copied as well, with Eric Schmidt taking over from Larry Page as the most highly paid nanny who has ever lived.
This job is largely to keep the firm out of trouble, and given how much pressure Google is increasingly under for avoidable mistakes, it seems to me that he really isn't doing his job. He was either ineffective or incompetent at Sun, which dropped into sharp decline after he left (the CTO role is strategic), and he almost put Novell out of business. He has been handed a great gift with the Google CEO position, but it is clear who is driving Google's success -- the founders, who largely remain in control and active.