By James Allworth, Max Wessel, and Rob WheelerTwo night ago in after-hours trading, Apple’s stock dropped precipitously. The prophets of Apple’s doom emerged after a very long hibernation. Even those bullish on Apple’s prospects could hardly muster more than lukewarm praise of Tim Cook’s appointment to CEO of Apple Inc, saying, “he’s pretty good, but he’s no Steve Jobs.” We believe they’re all missing the point. Jobs has managed to perform the ultimate feat of leadership — he’s embedded himself so deeply within the cultural fabric of Apple that the company no longer needs him.
This is not the first time that Steve Jobs has left Apple. And yes, the last time it was an unmitigated disaster. After Jobs’ departure, the company went from an innovative powerhouse — the envy of the industry — to a marginalized computer-maker with 2% market share. The company’s financial deterioration was even more stark — Apple came within weeks of filing for bankruptcy brought on by a succession of product flops and mismanagement. The company’s future looked exceedingly bleak.
And then… Jobs returned. He sprinkled his product marketing magic liberally around the company and the rest is now history. Apple is the most influential and successful company in the world.
Those who are concerned about Apple’s fate in a post-Jobs world fear that this history will repeat itself. They worry that Apple with Steve is successful; and that Apple without Steve is not.
But the Jobs that returned to Apple in 1998 was not the same Jobs that was forced out in 1985. The Jobs of ’85 believed that all he needed to do was shape the amazing products that Apple shipped. However, during his exile, he saw what happened to the company that he loved — it lost the ability to ship great products — and he returned determined to ensure that it never happened again. After 1998, he wasn’t just interested in building great products himself. He was interested in making sure everyone else within Apple was able to build great products too — to be able to think like he did.
In short, he focused on building a robust culture — a Steve-infused culture — within his company.
The study of organisations has revealed a detailed understanding of how corporate cultures emerge. One of the most famous works is by MIT scholar Edgar Schien. He observed that the organisation’s repeated tasks are the seeds from which its culture blossoms. As an organisation overcomes challenges in order to complete tasks, it develops certain rules for addressing those challenges. As those rules are improved upon and prove increasingly successful at helping the company accomplish its tasks, they in turn become increasingly accepted within the organisation. Eventually, those rules become habit and this is what we define as a corporate culture — the habits that have evolved within a company to accomplish its repeated tasks.
Ever since that Bondi Blue iMac was first released back at MacWorld 1998, Jobs has slowly infused his way of thinking deeply within Apple. Jobs has forced Apple to repeatedly tackle the task of conceiving, developing, and marketing revolutionary products. In doing so, Jobs has created a culture within the company that is capable of exactly that.
Now, the culture has coalesced to such a point that every time someone at Apple makes a decision — from the colour of metal panelling in the retail stores to the animations on the iPhone’s interface — that Apple employee has one overriding thought:
What would Steve do?
At first, Jobs had to scream and shout on a pretty regular basis to get his way. His tantrums became legendary all throughout the Valley. Nobody who worked at Apple enjoyed being on the receiving end; they either conformed to what he wanted or they found themselves looking for a new job. But it wasn’t long before they started thinking like he did — thinking different — as it became apparent that doing so would not only let them avoid a tongue lashing, but it also formed the basis of making insanely great products. Each success only reinforced the fact that it made sense to think like this and the carrot of product success became more effective than the stick of Steve’s tantrums.
In fact, the infusion of Jobs’ thinking into the Apple culture has been so effective that by the time of his first medical leave of absence in 2009, not that much changed. He still showed up on Apple’s campus to check in and see how his latest babies were progressing, but most of the work was done in his absence. He was involved not because he had to be but because he wanted to be.
Still not convinced? Well, the second coming of Jobs to Apple was actually not the first time he pulled off the feat of instilling a culture of innovation and creativity in a company that would outlast his own presence there. The first time was when he built Pixar — which has had a string of success similar to Apple’s that has involved minimal involvement on Jobs’ part.
Today at Apple is going to be exactly the same as yesterday. If anything, the Messiah’s departure is only going to make his influence there grow stronger still. As they make their way into work tomorrow, a bunch of motivated, incredibly smart people — all focused on building great products — will have one overarching thought on their mind:
What would Steve do?
James Allworth, Max Wessel, and Rob Wheeler are all Fellows at the Forum for Growth and Innovation at Harvard Business School.
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