The Real Succession Plan for Steve Jobs: Apple Thinks Different with Apple University

This week’s announcement of Steve Jobs’ succession to Chairman puts the topic of success management back on the front page.  When such a strong leader steps aside, how does Apple maintain its admired culture of innovation, execution, and business growth?  There is more here than turning over the reigns to Tim Cook:  Apple has a unique and powerful succession model built on its own experience in leadership, media, and innovation.

Steve Jobs is more than a leader – he has deep experience in the technology industry.

First, Steve Jobs is more than a business leader.  He embodies the essence of Apple – with vision, passion for design and product excellence, wrapped in a perfectionist personality with amazing business savvy.  His ability to lead Apple comes not only from his leadership qualities, but also his deep experience in the technology industry.  Over the period of his career (he is around my age so I watched Apple during every step of its life) he has out-innovated the pioneers (Nokia, Motorola, Google), out-executed the big guys (Microsoft, IBM – remember OS/2?), and out-flanked the operators (Dell, HP).

Part of Jobs’ leadership strength comes from his experience with technology innovation: Mac vs. Windows, NeXT vs. Sun, iPhone vs. Blackberry, and iPad and iOS vs. everyone else.  This deep experience in technology and how to refine it for consumer delight has taken years to develop.

Jobs’ Leadership Philosophy and Style

The second issue Apple faces in its succession strategy is what to do about Jobs’ leadership style and philosophy. I have met many people who work at Apple, and I know that his force of personality is both revered and feared in the company. One Apple employee I spoke with mentioned that she was afraid to run into him in the elevator because if he asked her any questions she was afraid she might say something wrong and get fired.

This style of leadership has created a strong sense of execution and excellence at the company – but will also be hard to replace. During his long career, Jobs has developed a long list of philosophies about management, and these need to be incorporated into the future.

How Succession Works

We have looked at succession management among hundreds of companies, and our keynote research in this topic (High-Impact Succession Management®) developed the following maturity model.

As this model shows, companies evolve their succession strategies from “replacement charts” (these were originally created in World War 1 when soldiers were killed on the battlefield and the Army needed to know who would take a soldier’s place) to a highly integrated process which enables people at all levels to move from role to role.

Our research shows that fewer than 8% of all organizations have reached the top level in this model, so this area of business is very much a work in process for most organizations.  What our research has found is that succession only works well when there is a clear understanding of the leadership traits and competencies needed at each level, and the process is sponsored by executives at the top.

In the case of Apple, we know that the board and Jobs himself have been planning for succession for several years.

Apple’s Succession Strategy for Jobs:  Apple University

Publicly, we know that Apple has been grooming Tim Cook for several years.  Not only has he already experienced the CEO role, he has been working directly with Jobs on the company’s supply chain – so he has a deep understanding of the internal operations of the company.

Behind the scenes, we also know that there has been a project at Apple for several years to “capture the essence of Steve Jobs management philosophies” for generations ahead. Under the title of Dean of Apple University, Joel Podolny (former Dean of Yale Business School) has been building a leadership curriculum around Jobs behind the scenes.  While we have not seen the product of this work, several ex-Apple employees mentioned to us that this is a very strategic project designed to help Apple continue under Steve’s leadership model even after Steve leaves the company.

This is an example of Apple “thinking different.”  While most companies would look at competency models and hire executive recruiters to assess leadership candidates for succession, Apple is taking a page from our High-Impact Learning Organization® playbook.  They are capturing the essence of Apple’s executive performance and philosophy in digital form for leaders on into the future.

We have been studying corporate universities for many years – and most highly revered programs (McDonald’s Hamburger University, GE Crotonville, Accenture Q Center) are true learning institutions that bring together management philosophies, technical skills, and leaders to help all employees understand the organization and its principles and practices.  In the case of Apple, I believe the fairly secretive Apple University has spent a lot of time and money capturing the experiences and principles of Steve Jobs for others to use in the future.

According to Apple, the company founded Apple University in 2008 “to teach Apple employees how to think like Steve Jobs and make decisions he would make.”  In many ways it was built to solve the problem of “running Apple after Steve Jobs” – and setting in place the tools and information which helps Apple learn from his collective 30 years of wisdom.

 Fig 2:  Apple University Strategy (from PC Magazine,2817,2391818,00.asp)

As the graphic above shows (this was obtained from, the University is designed around capturing Job’s collective learning and translating this into content, programs, and materials which Apple employees and leaders can use long into the future.

I had the opportunity to meet with one of Apple’s prior heads of training, and she told me about Apple’s highly focused approach to technology-enabled learning. For many years Apple has been using its own products (one of Apple’s earliest market wins was its ability to sell computers for digital education) to build highly interactive learning solutions for retail and operations teams.  When Apple iPhones are rolled out to AT&T and Verizon, for example, the company must instantly train tens of thousands of sales people within a few weeks.  This type of training is done through advanced e-learning, and this type of expertise has been refined within Apple for all the years that we worked with the company.

Today Apple University is still a well-kept secret.  But from what we have learned, I think it is one of the most innovative and exciting forms of succession management yet to be seen.  Think different about your own leadership and how you can transfer skills and culture forward when your leaders leave.  Apple once again is likely to show us the way.