The Next Decade for Apple, Google and Microsoft CEOs

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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.

Google's hiring practices are a valley joke. Its solid efforts like Android and search are offset by a growing image of a company that may redefine the word evil in the market, and the firm has yet to learn how to really market who it is or what it does. It just had to reprice its employee options, which is partially a problem of the economy but it's also a problem neither Apple nor Microsoft had. As a result, Google's strengths remain with the founders, and it appears that the super nanny remains largely on a highly paid vacation. He is going to be incredibly wealthy, regardless, but when his tale is told, if Google is successful, he will appear as the empty suit. And if Google isn't, he'll likely be a great deal of the cause. He didn't do his job (it often looks like he still thinks he is a CTO). The role of a startup super nanny will shortly be redundant in Google because it is starting to mature. Eric Schmidt needs to make sure he steps up before he steps out, or cash and regrets will be his only final rewards. Granted, a lot of cash.


Microsoft: The Search for Fire


There is no doubt that Steve Ballmer shares the success of Microsoft through the '90s. He is largely credited with keeping the company focused and on making it the enterprise and world power it became in partnership with Bill Gates. But as a CEO he has been timid, afraid to be himself because he doesn't fit the template of the Stepford CEOs that financial analysts seem to prefer. We, and I mean analysts and reporters, probably helped do this to him by pounding on him when he looked different.


Microsoft's core problem, in my opinion, isn't that it lacks success; it dominates a number of markets still. But the company has become too complex to manage over time and both Steve and Bill have been too reticent to eliminate units that are underperforming or that were bad ideas to begin with. We shouldn't forget that Microsoft had some stunning successes in Windows Server, interoperablity, Windows 7, and even going toe to toe with Apple in marketing for once. Companies make mistakes with products, and there is a rather impressive list of failures for Microsoft this decade (it is interesting to note that Google appears to match Microsoft in the top 10 stupid failure list), as well as with divisions. Steve Jobs and Sam Palmisano are two of the very few CEOs that did this well this decade and both got grief initially for doing it. A lot of grief. But it still needs to be done.


Of the three CEOs, it is Steve Ballmer who concerns me the most. Steve Jobs is likely to die in the job on the path he is in and without regret. Eric Schmidt will never lose his celebrity or the cash he has accumulated. But Steve Ballmer's image is very important to him and while he will survive the job, likely leave as one of the wealthiest men on the planet, and always be one of the great names, he is also likely to view himself as a failure. I watched how that kind thing destroyed my grandfather's relationship with his family, how the related wealth cost him his daughter and son, and how he destroyed the quality of his own life. I don't wish that for Steve. I consider the guy a friend of mine, one I haven't actually seen in some time, and if I could figure out what more I could do to help him, I would. He has to overcome his fear of being himself and become the CEO that he still could be or live in regret for what will be the rest of his life. I doubt he'll even see this, but my hope is he sees it in time.


Wrapping Up


I wouldn't trade places with Steve Jobs or Steve Ballmer for any price. Jobs is too wedded to his job and Ballmer is tied up by concerns that are all too common in executive jobs and afraid to be himself. I wouldn't mind trying Eric's job, but have never really aspired to being the highest paid nanny in existence and that job isn't easy, either.


For each of these men, and for each of us, the first day of the rest of our lives starts tomorrow. Some of us will step up and make it what it could be, most of us won't, and this is no different for these executives. CEOs, for all the money and power they have, are generally trapped by the trappings of the job, manipulated by others, and sacrifice family and quality of life for strangers and financial rewards.


Here in the valley, it also seems like mistresses are a perk and it is amazing how much infidelity and false friendships surround many CEOs (who think folks don't know they are cheating). Their children are often badly damaged from the side effects of too much wealth and too little supervision, and they leave their jobs with little in the way of a real life. Often, the ones I've known I've pitied as much as admired. As we leave this decade, we may want to remember, in the things that matter, that many of us have more of them than the CEOs we envy.


If you have a strong family, a life after work, and retire to a happy home, many of those executives will end up envying you, and I say this with some experience. I hope we all do a better job remembering what is important this next decade and I particularly hope my friend Steve finds his way.