Continuity: Executive succession plans in history

Robert Palmer
R. Palmer|01.15.09

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Continuity: Executive succession plans in history

We all know that Steve Jobs will eventually leave Apple, and Apple's executive team has a responsibility to draft a succession plan to help minimize the turmoil when that day comes. To figure out what Apple might do, we can look to the past for other examples.

Ford Motor Company was founded in 1903 by Henry Ford. In 1918, at the age of 55, Henry handed the presidency of the company to his son Edsel. When Edsel died in 1943, Henry came back to Ford Motor Company ill, "mentally inconsistent, suspicious, and generally no longer fit" for the job.

Most of the board didn't want him to be president. Even with no official title, he'd been in de facto control of the company since Edsel took over. Nevertheless, the board elected him (rather than cross him), and he served until the end of the second World War. Gravely ill, he turned control of the company over to his grandson, Henry Ford II, in 1945. Henry Ford died two years later.

Steve Jobs has four children, the oldest of whom is Lisa Brennan-Jobs, a 30-year-old journalist. None have publicly expressed any desire to run Apple.

Maybe a look into Apple's past is a lesson in itself. When Jobs was forced to leave Apple in 1985, he was relieved by John Sculley, who had most recently been CEO of PepsiCo. (Michael Spindler was next, hired from inside Apple Europe to lead the company worldwide.) Gil Amelio, another past CEO, was hired away from National Semiconductor, and proceeded to lay off a third of Apple's workforce.

Should Apple now look to another company for its next CEO? Many companies have found new CEOs from outside their walls, with varying degrees of success. Carly Fiorina, famously, was hired by HP from Lucent, and she became a reviled figure among HP's employees for her brash management style -- and for allegedly spying on other board members. On the other hand, there's Lee Iacocca, who is credited with reviving the Chrysler brand in the 1980s after being fired by Henry Ford II. Iacocca introduced the world to the minivan, and bought AMC to revitalize the Jeep brand in the early 90s.

Perhaps more relevant, and more recent, is the story of sometimes-foe Microsoft, and its founder Bill Gates. Gates stepped down from his role as CEO in 2000, but was (and is) still chairman of Microsoft's board of directors. He handed the CEO spot to Steve Ballmer, and split his duties among Ballmer, chief software architect Ray Ozzie and chief strategy officer Craig Mundie. Gates' strategy? Promote from within.

We may be seeing hints of a succession plan like this already at Apple. No one person could probably replace Steve Jobs, so instead a (insert painful swallow here) Microsoft-style approach might be forthcoming. The title of CEO, in theory, could go to Tim Cook, currently in charge of Apple as Jobs takes his leave of absence. Any of Apple's senior vice presidents, including Jonathan Ive and Phil Schiller, could have Jobs' responsibilities split among them. The big question is: Who is the strongest leader among these Apple veterans?

Let us know what your succession plan would be by leaving us a comment.

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