Succeeding the Founder

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On August 24, 2011, Steve Jobs resigned his role as Apple CEO and was replaced by Tim Cook. This followed a seven-month period in which Cook was already functioning as CEO while Jobs focused on fighting the health problems that ultimately took his life on October 5.

Many are watching to see how this unique leadership transition will work out for Apple, but it is not the first unique leadership transition they have faced. Jobs, of course, was the cofounder of Apple, but organizational infighting led to his ouster when John Sculley took over in the mid-1980s. Sculley oversaw the growth of the Macintosh and thus the company, but when that growth slowed and new internal issues arose, a series of CEOs failed to get the company back on track. In 1997, a more experienced Jobs returned and drove tremendous growth.

The leadership history of Apple is a good reminder that a leadership transition–particularly one involving the founder–presents both risk and
opportunity to any organization. If done poorly, it spawns uncertainty, conflict, and stress, stalling growth and exacerbating misalignment that may or may not have already been there. If done well, it brings new vision and strategic clarity to the organization. Indeed, success for an organization begins with the leader and the culture he or she creates and nurtures.

Much has been written about how to manage effective transition, but most of it focuses on the outgoing founder or CEO. Our work as advisors to midmarket companies has enabled us to closely observe numerous transitions, and we would like to look at this issue from the perspective of the successor.

(Read this full article, which was recently published in The CEO Advantage Journal.)

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