What makes companies successful? How can companies achieve success that can be sustained across markets, customer segments and in the face of increasing competition? Most importantly, how can companies strategically leverage their resources, skills and competencies to effectively create a competitive advantage that can be sustained over long periods of time?
These questions are at the heart of every strategy, every corporate mission and literally every tactical move that companies make.
Modern multinational organizations are highly complex beings. Not only are they embedded in highly networked institutional environments, their survival and potential success and growth are a function of multiple moving parts that influence and are influenced by factors both internal to the companies (resource endowments and strategic plans), and external to the companies (nature of the industry, level of competition and the regulatory constraints). As such, it is very tough to attribute corporate success to any single factor.
Yet multiple stakeholders such as customers, partners, media, security analysts, rating agencies and others are forced to make judgments about the quality and potential of companies. This can be quite challenging. These external stakeholders play the role of independent third-party endorsers in the marketplace. As such, their judgments can carry considerable power and influence over other intermediaries.
This creates a challenging situation. On the one hand, these stakeholders have access to limited and at times incomplete information on the companies they are to evaluate. On the other hand, they are called on to make expert judgments on the reasons for the relative success or failure of many companies. In these situations, more often than not these intermediaries rely on external heuristics that can simplify their decision-making process.
Heuristics allows evaluators to distill a complex set of information into easy and simple decision criteria. As Malcolm Gladwell demonstrates in his celebrated book Blink, making decisions based on external heuristics is about thin slicing. Of the many heuristics that can be used, one of the highly visible, accepted and legitimate heuristics is that of the nature of leadership, the characteristics of the leader and the track record of a leader’s vision.
The way corporations are run and their fates are as much a function of the external pressures and norms of any given industry as they are of the idiosyncratic personal characteristics of the leader including the leader’s personality type, values, need for achievement, narcissism and appetite for risk-taking.
Many highly celebrated global corporations have risen and fallen with the attitudes, aptitudes and idiosyncrasies of their leaders. Jack Welch of General Electric is probably one of the best examples. He took over an iconic behemoth of a company and completely turned it around to make it one of the largest, most successful companies in the world.
Howard Schultz at Starbucks, Phil Knight at Nike, Jeff Bezos at Amazon, Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, and many other legendary examples testify to this phenomenon of attributing corporate success to their leaders.
Jobs as game changer
Nonetheless, nowhere else has this been so much the case than in the context of Apple Inc. Since its founding days, Steve Jobs became the representation of the values, culture, vision and aspirations of the brand. The successful products, the game-changing revolutionary technologies, the adherence to quality and style and to top it all, the personal charisma and vision of Steve Jobs have all further enhanced the mystique of Job’s leadership and his association with Apple.
Till his recent demise, much of the focus was on the benefits of his leadership to the brand. However, with Tim Cook taking over as the CEO of Apple, questions abound about the effects of Job’s absence on the health of the brand and whether the new leader will be able to match the founder’s charisma, showmanship, vision and command the brand in achieving new heights.
Indeed Apple under Steve Jobs was a ship that was run tightly with the CEO being the only brand ambassador to the external world. Furthermore, given that Jobs was also the founder and chairman of the board, a carefully planned succession plan was not in place.
While the unity of command at the top proved extremely beneficial, it did come with its set of challenges. For example, whenever Steve Jobs took a break due to his health problems, Apple stock took a temporary dip. Given all this, it is only natural that the media and the general public are concerned about the fate of Apple without its legendary CEO.
How can Apple continue on its path of technological innovation? How can it sustain its incredible growth achieved under Jobs?
The short answer is that Apple will continue to dominate the consumer electronics industry with its iPod, iPhone and iPad. But it has to be careful not to fall into the same traps that Dell and Starbucks did after their founders, Michael Dell and Howard Schultz respectively, withdrew from the active management of their companies. To ensure that Apple carefully navigates the post-Jobs years, the brand has to implement and follow three important strategic steps.
Unflinching focus on the Apple brand
In every category that Apple operates in such as personal computers, music players and mobile phones, competitors offer a much larger set of features at much more competitive prices. Indeed, much of the competitive landscape is based on topping Apple products in one or more of the features at a much more attractive price. Yet, Apple has continued to be the market leader.
One of the biggest reasons for such continued success is the positioning of the Apple brand, which focuses on its cutting-edge technology, classy design and the high symbolic value of its brand. Apple has never been about the sum of individual features, but rather it has always represented a way of representing oneself by choosing quality and style.
One way Apple can continue its past successes is by not moving away from supporting, investing and growing the Apple brand. As much as Steve Jobs propelled Apple to the stratosphere of brand success, at the heart of it all is the values and value proposition of the Apple brand.
The customer experience, the symbolic value and the opportunity to access the most cutting-edge technology in the most user-friendly ways allows the brand to be what it is. As such, Tim Cook and his team should aggressively stay true to these core brand values. Although it might be impossible to replace Jobs’s charisma and vision, Apple can truly build on the extraordinary foundation that Jobs has put in place.
Continue being a pioneer instead of a follower
Being a rebel in an industry dominated by the mighty Microsoft, Apple’s early successes came from ground-breaking innovations. Apple did not follow the rules and innovate in incremental ways, but rather broke all the rules by disruptive innovation that changed the rules of the game.
Being a pioneer came to define the core identity of the Apple brand, so much so that every product that has been launched has fundamentally changed the dynamics of the industry, shaken up the competitive landscape and redefined core business models.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the tablet market. Since the launch of the iPad, competitors ranging from Asus, Acer and Lenovo to Motorola, Samsung and Sony have scrambled to bring their own “iPad killer” to market. Despite the allure of the Android operating system, none of these competitors have managed to put a dent in iPad’s continued soaring success.
Going ahead, Apple should stay true to the pioneering innovator’s gene that has been so strongly etched in Apple’s DNA by Steve Jobs. Tim Cook and his team should not succumb to competitive threats and stray away from ground-breaking innovation.
Develop the top executive team
One of the biggest causes for global iconic brands to fall is the lack of a well-developed leadership team. When Michael Dell and Howard Schultz stepped down as CEOs and appointed professional CEOs to run their respective companies and the performance was not satisfactory, they were forced to return as CEO to rescue their companies. While such instances are lauded for the visionary abilities of the founder CEOs, they also mask a glaring hole in the leadership pipeline. What happens to the companies when their founders leave?
While Steve Jobs was lauded for his visionary leadership of the company, one of the main criticisms was his lack of attention to grooming a strong line-up of second-rung leaders who could take over and successfully run the company.
Tim Cook seems to publicly involve more people by sharing responsibility and limelight. He should further ensure that he instils procedures and structures inside the company that can create a formal ability to groom and develop high-potential, risk-taking and innovative leaders who can lead the brand from the front when the situation demands.