Apple’s Quest to Outlive Steve Jobs

On August 24, Tim Cook took over the reins of Apple from its co-founder and unusually high-visibility leader, Steve Jobs.  This week, Steve’s direct mentorship of Tim and Apple’s leadership came to an end, as his years-long battle with pancreatic cancer reached its conclusion.

For years Steve’s leadership style has been studied by practitioners and scholars alike, in part due to the enormous success of the companies he ran, and in part because, like Apple, his style was so very unique.   Books and  trade articles regularly attempt to distill his approach into teachable principles that can help other organizations achieve Apple’s success.  Memorable presentations at the Society of Industrial/Organizational Psychologists offered Steve’s style as the thorny exception to allegedly universal leadership truths.

While memorials and celebrations of Steve’s leadership continue, the press is now turning some of its attention to the inevitable comparisons between Steve and his immediate successor.   But at least so far, little attention has been paid to the broader story of the leadership development system Steve put into place over the past three years.

As Jessica Guynn noted her recent L.A. Times story, Steve invested considerable time re-invigorating Apple’s corporate university, and in 2009 hired Joel Podolny, one of higher education’s most innovative business leaders to head it up.  Recruited from the deanship at Yale School of Management, Joel not only led a highly successful curricular overhaul at the school as the youngest dean in its history, he had also been a devoted Apple computer user since the days of the Apple II.

With a world-class university like Stanford so close by, why would Apple invest so much in building its own university – one that offers no products for sale outside of its own walls?   Clearly, Apple’s executive team recognized that leadership development needed to be one of its core competencies.  The swift and decisive hand-off between Steve and Tim also suggests a clear recognition of the value of succession planning – not just identifying replacements, but preparing them for the roles they will need to take.

NCHL was founded on the principle that leadership development needs to be a core competency of healthcare organizations.  The demands on healthcare leaders continue to grow and evolve rapidly, roles take longer to master, and on-the-job mastery continues to demand center stage.

Over the past ten years, many healthcare organizations have made great strides in adopting leadership development practices, shifting the dialog over time from “why” to “how.”   Leading corporate healthcare universities, such as NSLIJ’s Center for Learning and Innovation, now easily hold their own against leadership develpment in other sectors.

What might healthcare learn from Apple?  As expected, the new Apple U. is as shrouded as the rest of Apple’s trade secrets.  What little has been revealed by former executives and other investigative efforts suggests a leaders-as-teachers approach, perhaps not so different from what Becton, Dickinson, & Company’s Ed Betof  has already shared with the world.  If successful, Apple’s case study may prove the strongest yet for the contribution of leadership development to continued organizational vitality.

As both an analyst of leadership excellence, and someone who first learned to program (in all-caps) on an Apple II+, I am rooting for their continued success.

About Andrew Garman

Chief Executive Officer, NCHL; Professor, Health Systems Management Department, Rush University

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