Analysis: History shows iconic CEOs tough act to follow

By Bill Rigby

SEATTLE (Reuters) - How does a company recover from the loss of an iconic leader like Steve Jobs at Apple Inc <AAPL.O>?

Sometimes, it doesn't.

Sony Corp <6758.T> has never regained the dominance in consumer electronics it built under co-founder Akio Morita. Microsoft Corp's <MSFT.O> stock price hasn't budged in the decade since Bill Gates stepped down as CEO.

The jury is still out on Jeff Immelt's stewardship of General Electric <GE.N> after taking over from legendary boss Jack Welch.

The question has vexed Apple shareholders since Jobs resigned as CEO on Wednesday.

While he will stay on as chairman, investors are parsing how much of Apple's success was due to Jobs' day-to-day leadership, and how much of his approach has become part of the fabric of the company, ensuring future success.

"Every major company survives the passing of the founder," said Peter Cappelli, Professor of Management at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. "But Jobs seems to have played a particularly unusual role in the company, actively making the final decisions on a lot of the innovations. The question is whether the company can keep operating like that with a different CEO."

History shows that is a tricky proposition. Iconic, hands-on leaders like Jobs are by definition irreplaceable, and companies need a plan for surviving without them, experts said.

"You're not going to find another Steve Jobs," said Charles Elson, law professor and corporate governance expert at the University of Delaware. "The key for a board is that the company itself is perpetual and human beings are mortal. They come and go. You have to always prepare for the fact that someone is not going to be there because the company lives on."


A major risk is trying to replicate the iconic CEO. Sometimes a complete change of personality and skills is called for.

"Sam Walton at Wal-Mart <WMT.N> had a famously large personality and charisma, so he tried to groom a successor that lacked that," said Michael Carrier, a professor at Rutgers School of Law in New Jersey, who has written extensively on innovation. "He showed that it didn't matter, you could still have a very successful Wal-Mart."

Instilling a culture over the years -- rather than projecting personality -- is key to successful evolution, said Bruce Avolio, Professor of Management at the University of Washington's Foster School Business in Seattle.

"A lot is often done before these events happen for companies to remain successful -- building the bench strength of leadership over the years," he said. "One thing we learn is the values of founders often become part of the fabric of the way the organization operates, and from what I can tell that is true of Apple."

Often the people who follow these charismatic founders are not necessarily charismatic themselves, he added. They tend to focus on organizing the next stage of the company's development rather than reinventing it.

The methodical Immelt may fall into that category. He is regarded as an able successor to the more fiery Welch at GE, even though the company's share price is still less than half what it was when he took over in 2001.

Apple's new CEO Tim Cook, an understated leader without Jobs knack for drama, may also follow that approach, and is not expected to turn himself into an imitation of Jobs.

The opposite risk is that Apple may come to miss Jobs' tireless need to question and reinvent.

That -- along with the implosion of Japan' economy -- was a major reason for the stagnation of Sony in the late stages of the reign of co-founder Morita, who stepped down in 1994, some industry watchers believe.

"There's a sense that Sony became a different company afterwards," Wharton's Cappelli said. "It started to miss out on innovations. It's not clear that's inevitable, but it's clear they didn't do so well."

Conservative Japanese culture may have compounded the problem.

"There may have been a resistance to challenging the things that he (Morita) put in place because it would have been seen as disrespectful," University of Washington's Avolio said. "Though I don't think that's the case at Apple."


Microsoft may be suffering a similar malady since Gates handed over the CEO job to Steve Ballmer in 2000, and gave up day-to-day involvement in the company in 2008 -- although he remains the chairman.

"When you are in such a dominant position in a market, it's very difficult for folks in those organizations to challenge and redirect in any significant way," Avolio said. "Microsoft still has talented people, but perhaps it hasn't really challenged the fundamental assumptions about the businesses that have been their success."

Some argue that the risk of betting on an Apple without Jobs may be less risky than an Apple with him making the decisions.

"Jobs bet the farm several times and won each time," Cappelli said. "Is this a guy who could have kept doing this forever? Or would one of these bets have failed? In which case the company would have done worse than a Sony? It's hard to know."

With or without iconic leaders, companies go through stages, and the best they can do is ensure some kind of continuity of approach, experts agreed.

"What was good a few years back may not be necessary going forward," University of Delaware's Elson said. "That's why you want a board of directors that is independent of management and objective, to evaluate the direction the company needs to take."

(Reporting by Bill Rigby; Editing by Derek Caney)