Succession Strategies: Facing My Assumptions.

As a student of African politics, I love to read about leaders on the continent (I’m a student of US politics too). Statements credited to leaders on the continent are my favourite. In 2006, during an interview conducted by journalists with Guinéenews, President Lansana Conté (the President of the Republic of Guinea) announced that he intended to stay as President until 2010, while still looking for a successor who “loves the country and will protect it against its enemies.” The statement stayed with me as I pondered how successful succession can be planned. President Lassana died in 2008 without that successor or putting a succession plan in place.

A few companies come to mind as I think about great successions.

  • Tim Cook taking over from Steve Jobs as CEO of Apple.
  • Sundar Pichai succeeding Larry Page, who had succeeded Eric Smidt as CEO of Google.
  • Satya Nadella taking over from Steve Ballmer, who took over from Bill Gates as CEO of Microsoft.

How did they do it at Apple?

It had always intrigued me how Steve Jobs made such a great decision with Tim Cook. It fascinated me so much I decided to start some research to understand how they did it. Today, I am sharing what I learnt. I found one of the last emails he wrote to the company board mentioning Tim.

Photo by Alisina Elyasi

On Monday, January 17, 2011, the then CEO (Steve Jobs) sent the following email to the employees at Apple:

At my request, the board of directors has granted me a medical leave of absence so I can focus on my health. I will continue as CEO and be involved in major strategic decisions for the company.
I have asked Tim Cook to be responsible for all of Apple’s day to day operations. I have great confidence that Tim and the rest of the executive management team will do a terrific job executing the exciting plans we have in place for 2011.
I love Apple so much and hope to be back as soon as I can. In the meantime, my family and I would deeply appreciate respect for our privacy.
Source: Apple Inc.

Steve speaks about his great confidence in Tim and the rest of the management at Apple. A few months later the big decision was made as he had to step down due to health concerns. He had a succession plan which he activated. Find below his resignation letter:

To the Apple Board of Directors and the Apple Community:
I have always said if there ever came a day when I could no longer meet my duties and expectations as Apple’s CEO, I would be the first to let you know. Unfortunately, that day has come.
I hereby resign as CEO of Apple. I would like to serve, if the Board sees fit, as Chairman of the Board, director and Apple employee.
As far as my successor goes, I strongly recommend that we execute our succession plan and name Tim Cook as CEO of Apple.
I believe Apple’s brightest and most innovative days are ahead of it. And I look forward to watching and contributing to its success in a new role.
I have made some of the best friends of my life at Apple, and I thank you all for the many years of being able to work alongside you.
Source: Apple Inc.

Corporate Stakes Could be Higher.

Sometimes, we make-believe that there is less at stake when corporations are considering successors (that is, when compared to a nation). Corporate stakes can sometimes be bigger than national politics. As of August 2011, when Tim Cook finally took over as CEO, Apple had $108b in revenue (trailing 12 months). Apple would have ranked as the 35th biggest state economy in America, the 7th biggest economy in Africa and 102nd global economy (current GDP vs 2011 revenue numbers). With stakes so high, politics, coercion and manipulation would be rampant as humans hustle for power.

Across Africa, there’s a struggle to find qualified successors in both politics and business. Lessons may have to be learnt from those who played this game at such high levels and achieved distinctions. I think the best way to look at these lessons is to examine a few assumptions I learnt along the way about succession.

Assumption 1: Most Successors were first Mentees.

It is assumed that most successors were first great mentees. In the case of Tim, that was far from the truth. Tim was well respected in the industry and it appears Steve did everything to recruit him. Tim had been Director of North African Fulfilment at Compaq and was establishing himself as a maverick in operations management. He was skilled at optimizing operations to make them leaner and better.

As soon as he took over, Tim closed Apple-owned factories and warehouses. He outsourced them, replacing them with contract manufacturers. The board of Apple saw what Steve had seen before hiring him. In his words, Tim spoke about first meeting Steve…

“…five minutes into my initial interview with Steve, I wanted to throw caution and logic to the wind and join Apple. My intuition already knew that joining Apple was a once in a lifetime opportunity to work for the creative genius and to be on the executive team that could resurrect a great American company.”
Read full speech here:

The more you read the more you see that the respect was mutual between these two. In Tim, Steve saw the future of Apple. With Tim, they would increase production significantly and guarantee profits.

Assumption 2: Many Successors were early adopters.

On joining Apple in 1998 (22yrs after the company was established), Tim was first appointed Senior Vice President for worldwide operations. He wasn’t employee number 2 or 3 as you would often expect when doing succession planning. Many of the founding staff had left or were forced out when the board first Steve and hired new management but many were still at Apple. Tim was an outsider with a massive understanding of what it takes to value engineer tech. Trained as an Industrial Engineer + Fuqua Scholar (Duke University) with a mind for operations optimization. Before he was appointed to that position at Apple, he was first Director at IBM and then Vice President at Compaq. During his Auburn University Commencement Speech in 2010, he shared how his friends and family tried to convince him not to make the move to Apple and instead stay at Compaq.

Tim was joining Apple at a critical point. Steve Jobs had just returned to the company after being fired a few years back. In 1996, we heard he was back and ready to recreate the buzz around Apple. He was recruiting some of the best minds he could find to support his vision for the company. Tim was one of such people, joining the all-star cast. Two years after Steve’s great return was the recruitment of Tim who would later turn out to be his successor.

So Steve Found Him.

In hindsight, Tim made a great decision moving to Apple. On the flip side, Steve was spot-on with his choice to hire Tim. Tim had led himself to this point, identifying a niche and created a career out of operational improvement. Steve would have lost out if he didn’t hire Tim at the time and together plan the future of the company (alongside other management personnel).

Tim shared in that same commencement address how he had been advised by many not to leave Compaq at that time. At the same time, there may have been many who thought Steve was making a bad decision by hiring him but it turned out to be a perfect pairing. Think about what the staff MAY have heard:

I will like to introduce my successor, who I just hired a few months ago. Give him your full support.

Always Delicate.

I also wonder how Steve managed the old guard and those who were ambitiously gunning for that position. How do you explain to them that they were never in contention for the role? People like Chris Espinosa, popularly referred to as Apple’s longest-serving employee, have been there from the beginning. Chris is only being mentioned here for serving long (22yrs at the time Tim took over) and not for wanting the role. Leadership isn’t something for the faint-hearted.

Passenger on Trial.

Don’t we all hate to be delayed on a flight by one looney passenger refusing to cooperate with the crew? Getting increasingly impatient, we act as calm as we can, waiting for that passenger (or group of passengers) to behave themselves. At moments like these, you wish that law was applied quickly and that we would be spared any extra waiting. As United Airlines found out, while handling this kind of situation, every issue has its context. Leadership is about assessing each event for context and applying relevant action. Every staff member a client engages with on behalf of the company shows some level of leadership (or lack of). With every one of those outcomes, the image of the brand/ company is changed, sometimes forever.

Photo by Hanson Lu

Leading through any crisis is first a matter of observation, analysis of the nuances of that situation before a decision. Executives are too quick to make “a statement” by how they handle a situation. Don’t be too quick to show strength to preserve your influence; there’s no shame in “being vulnerable”.

My Rule must be Obeyed.

In April 2017, the CEO of United Airlines had to respond to the fallout of a passenger being dragged off the plane by security for failing to comply with the flight crew. The crew had asked him to vacate his seat for a staff of the airline to board. I know how subordinates are placed in impossible situations and “forced” to act decisively because the boss has given firm demands. This staff was needed for some company project in the next city so he had to board. That passenger (who happened to be a medical doctor rushing for a hospital appointment) needed to be dropped.

Boss, there’s a problem, the flight is fully booked, and “Jude” can’t make it for the project. Response? Fix it! Now!! No excuses! A few scuffs later, that passenger was yanked out of his seat and pulled out of the plane like a thief. Smartphones did their duty, and minutes later, it was trending in the media. The CEO had to react. At this point, he had a few options before him, respond with empathy or with strength. I don’t know why it appears easier to portray strength as the first and (most often) only response. Most of those press releases typically contain the text “we are following policy and observing industry standards”, forgetting that this situation may call for some “out of the box thinking based on its unique circumstance.

In the statement released by the CEO, he explained it was deeply “regrettable” but “necessary”. He added that the security officials had to take that forceful action because they “were unable to gain his (the passenger’s) cooperation and physically removed him from the flight as he continued to resist”.

The reactions (from other passengers, the public and the media) was obviously negative. Shortly after, the CEO was forced to step down with his ego bruised.

All Personality or Policy.

Too often, we lead with ourselves. By that I mean, your leadership reveals your personality. If all you have is your ego, then that’s what you will lead with. There’s a danger with leading with your ego; it’s contagious. Soon teams are beginning to carry out actions without context, completely detached from the uniqueness of the present situation. However, in this case, they said they were following policy. “Policy” is usually a cover for structures, systems and processes without “heart”. If you interpret every policy like LAW, then you will only have robots as staff and enemies as clients. Robots, like the bunch who decided to treat this passenger as a criminal. He paid for his flight, he arrived on time, he followed the rules and was seated in his seat, yet he was wrong based on company policy.

If you interpret every company policy like the law then you will only have robots as staff and enemies as clients.

Empathy, context and perspective are required in handling similar situations. This is mostly because no two events are the same. In the case of this passenger being removed, it was United’s error and not his. He had boarded the flight rightly and wasn’t in error. On the other hand, United had overbooked the flight and now had the difficult job of managing previous instructions from “leadership” to get the “staff” on that flight without fail. Under a different leadership and working environment, the extra staff could have waited for any other flight, or the company could have offered an incentive for anyone willing to un-board on their own free will.

Was overbooking the plane a failure of policy? Very likely. However, these things can happen, and hopefully, they don’t happen too often. The response to the overbooking is the test of the “heart” of the policy and the quality of leadership.

Plenty policy documents don’t make great companies.

Ego: The Other Non-Functional Requirement.

As a startup founder, you should expect situations like these, though different. Let’s take the process of developing products that solve problems for clients. Under great leadership, development processes are enjoyable and energetic. However, that comes from understanding what MVPs (minimum viable products) are minimal but viable. When you tell an ego-filled boss that the best way to deliver this product is piecemeal, beginning with a bare-function MVP, you better prepare to explain for days, weeks or more. In such organizations, the product isn’t just about the problem it hopes to solve; more importantly, it has to meet the bosses ego-goals. Building up with iterations may be interpreted as “reputational losses” (code for I won’t be able to brag about this). To such a leader, the product must be complete, and it must make a splash.

Many bosses don’t like the idea of such approaches because of non-functional ego-centric goals, which place thrills over functionality. Look at the MVP products of Facebook and Twitter to see how uninspiring these products were back when released to the public. They were barely functional but functional enough to solve that basic need. If they were all about their egos, they would have waited to release these products to the market. On several projects, I have seen egos lead development projects into the ground, delay project delivery and abort market leadership.

You don’t build a great product or company around your ego. #EasyFail

My Ego is My Responsibility.

I am responsible for checking my ego. No one is responsible for pointing it out to me. Staff aren’t there to risk their jobs telling you who you are and what environment you are creating. You owe yourself that self-assessment, regularly and objectively.

Rarely have others, who are seemingly beneath us, been able to help us see us.

Often, only the near failure or complete failure of the project can help an egocentric leader look into the “mirror” and fix what they see and how they lead.