Apple's Steve Jobs Effect: When a Personality Becomes a Brand


By Tony Kontzer

One need only look at the way investors reacted initially to news that Apple CEO Steve Jobs plans to once again take a medical leave to understand just how strongly Jobs is associated with his company's identity.

Of course, any sane person understands that the market response was a complete over-reaction. It was pretty clear that Jobs' plans were announced the day before a quarterly earnings report because Apple knew it was about to knock Wall Street's socks off, thus quieting any concerns about a potential leadership vacuum.

Plus, we all saw how capable COO Tim Cook was at the helm the last time Jobs took medical leave. So capable, in fact, that Apple recently made sure to reward him handsomely for the job he did, a cycle that's likely to repeat itself should Jobs return from this most recent leave. And behind Jobs and Cook is a stable of executive talent that seems to put the company in good hands for the foreseeable future.

But in case we weren't totally clear about the "cult of personality" Jobs has attained, we should be now. Despite a strong team of leaders to carry on, and a product line that's generated more momentum than any in recent history, the specter of a Job-less Apple is apparently more than the market can bear.

The very real, and important, question this raises is: Is this good for Apple? Or, more generally, for any organization? Past history gives us spotty evidence in assessing the impact of a departed iconic CEO. Walt Disney's death didn't exactly kill his company, and Microsoft didn't exactly fall apart when Bill Gates handed the keys to his right-hand man, Steve Ballmer. But Charles Schwab Corp. found the going rough during the brief departure of founding CEO Charles Schwab's in 2003, and it again has struggled since Schwab left the company last October.

Apple itself floundered, too, and nearly went belly up, during the 12 years Jobs was exiled from the company. His return heralded one of the most spectacular recoveries in American business history, and that amazing run is one of the biggest reasons his presence is such a key to the perception that Apple is healthy.

The truth is a bit fuzzier. It's quite possible that Jobs' maniacal creative energy still drives much of what goes on at Apple. It's more likely that the machinery is so much bigger than him that, if given the chance, Apple would chug along just fine without him.

And that's what any company should do when any one executive walks out the door: chug along. That's why CIOs reading this probably shouldn't get any delusions of grandeur. Simply put, it's not the job of a CIO to stand out. In fact, when a CIO does stand out, it's generally not good news for the CIO.

Last week, I was listening to a radio interview with a place kicker for an NFL team, and he said that it was his job to make sure no one was talking about him, that as long as he was doing his job, his name shouldn't come up. That, in a nutshell, is how CIOs should see their roles--as grease that keeps the wheels of business turning. So long as things are running smoothly, everyone forgets all about the CIO. But let a few applications grow problematic, or network connectivity get a little spotty, and watch the CIO's name get bandied about.

Sure, there are times when a good, visionary CIO will spot opportunities to tap new technologies that can take the business to the next level. And they'd rightly deserve some recognition and compensation for having such an impact. But that's where their celebrity should begin and end. (And in my experience, pretty much every CIO is happy to keep his or her "celebrity" to a minimum.)

That's not to say CIOs can't find inspiration in Jobs' leadership example. They'd be wise to emulate his entrepreneurial spirit, his seemingly innate understanding of what technology users want, and his unbending demand for quality. But seeking the kind of cult standing Jobs holds outside of Apple is not the CIO's recipe for success. Leave the charisma-building to the CEO, and focus on being as invisible as possible. The results will speak for themselves.