Succession: Should Steve Jobs Become Virtually Immortal? Should You?

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Last week, I shared one of the experiences I had at Panasonic and contrasted that company's flagship product with the Apple Air. This was to showcase a life mistake I see often: choosing appearance over substance. Another comparison between Panasonic and Apple that has implications for most of the U.S. companies I cover is the lack of succession planning, particularly with regard to a critical founder. Panasonic's founder actually attempted, with limited technology, to make himself immortal. Now, years after he has passed, he's still nearly as vibrant inside the company as he was when he was CEO.


The reason I've chosen Apple again as the comparison point is that the recent drop in Apple's valuation is almost entirely attributed to speculation that Steve Jobs' health is failing and that there is no strong succession plan at Apple. There is apparently no one groomed to step in and fill the void that would exist were Jobs to depart.


Planning for Succession Sucks


At Microsoft, folks are focusing on Bill Gates' departure, and I believe the departure of its first major COO, Jon Shirley, largely set the firm up for the problems it had after the mid 90s. At IBM, Thomas Watson Jr.'s departure set up the near collapse of the company in the 80s. At Intel, Andy Grove and Dennis Carter left holes that crippled that firm. Michael Dell actually had to come back to his company. HP without Hewlett or Packard almost failed and now is dependent on a number of critical players who, themselves, may be just as critical to the firm's success.


But no company is more watched now than Apple. It has become painfully clear that many in the market are convinced Steve Jobs is critical to that company's survival. What appears to be the difference in the rare companies like Panasonic that do plan for the future (250 years into the future, in Panasonic's case) is that the founder realizes early on that the company must survive him and is willing to put in the extra effort to make sure it does. This effort is not insignificant and the documentation of how decisions are made, coupled with the training of a subordinate, is on top of everything else an overworked executive typically would view as tactical, more important.


The U.S. Exec's Tactical Problem


This points to what is likely the source of the problem: The U.S. CEO is often overly focused on the near-term performance of the company, not long-term strategy. One of the things that often makes a founder stand out is the need to have the company become their legacy; the ones with that need are actually more likely to plan long term than those that follow them.


I have noticed that some U.S. executives tend to be feel that they are irreplaceable; they take enjoyment from the fact that the firm will likely struggle after they are gone. This, unfortunately, puts a lot of the people who helped make them successful at risk, but I doubt they actually think about this.


The Personal Importance of Succession Planning


For a lot of us, our impact on the world has more to do with our skills and knowledge than anything else. Writers, actors and others that build things or create art have that as a legacy, but most of us don't do that. I was recently reminded of this when looking at Konosuke Matsushita's life work. He spent a massive amount of time (in 44 published books) documenting how he approached business and made decisions. Basically, he created one of the most definitive texts on how to be Konosuke Matsushita. Should any successor want to duplicate his success, he has apparently left an ample record of how to do that.


Whether intentional or not, the end result was a legacy of who he really was, not a two-dimensional image of what people chose to remember about him. For Steve Jobs, you would think that this would be important; the behaviors that created problems for him have been more interesting than those that have made him successful. His legacy, as it currently exists, will probably be outside of his control. Konosuke Matsushita worked to ensure that he controlled his legacy and, while I'm sure there are unflattering stories that circulate about him as well, they seem to be overwhelmed by his incredible effort to pass on what he felt was more important.


But virtually all of this was created before we had the Internet or the power to actually make him digitally immortal.


Passing on Our Experience


Strangely enough, as I thought about this topic, I quickly drifted away from the Panasonic and Apple founders to my own grandfather. I had not yet settled on what I wanted to be when he died and could have used his advice and support at times in my life when I made embarrassing mistakes. But, even though he tried to teach me critical skills, I was simply too young and rebellious and not ready to take the message while he still lived. If there was a way for you to become immortal, would you take it so that those that followed you, be they successors, children or grandchildren, could benefit from the lifetime of experience you could pass on?


A few weeks ago, I became aware of a new company and Web site focused on turning you into an expert system so that those that followed could ask the construct you had created critical future questions and get responses much like you would have given. While this technology is in its infancy, it shows promise in creating the very real possibility that you could become immortal, passing on your essence to the generations that follow. The company is called Virsona.


For Apple, it goes beyond just knowledge and into actual sales of products. McDonald's has created an ageless artificial spokesman in the form of Ronald McDonald. I'm sure using the combined resources of Pixar/Disney and Apple, a virtual Steve Jobs could be created who could forever sell Apple products. Backed partially by a properly built system like Virsona's, the end result could be a Steve Jobs that would never die and the near assured longevity of Apple.


Being irreplaceable isn't a sign of competence; it is a strong indicator of poor planning. Succession planning probably should get a higher priority than it does. While Apple may have the most visible problem, it is far from the only one. Maybe we should think about fixing that. But more important, maybe it is time to leave more than memories behind when we pass so that those that follow us don't need to make the same mistakes.