Steve Jobs’ resignation as Apple CEO will spawn some soul-searching on Infinite Loop in the days and weeks ahead, as Apple’s 49,000 employees decide exactly where their loyalties lie, according to researchers who study the effects of leadership change on organizations.
“Employees are asking themselves, ‘Was I working for Apple or for Steve?’ If the answer is Steve, they will wonder if Apple will be the same place without him,” said Gary Ballinger of the University of Virginia, who studies how departing bosses affect employees and other components of a company.
Though Jobs’ departure from Apple has been anticipated for years, and he will remain involved as chair of the company’s board, the move will invariably sow some psychic tumult — both with workers and consumers. Apple has a history of high job satisfaction among employees and a cultlike following among its users. How much of that depended on Jobs will become more clear as people in both groups adjust to his absence.
No matter how good new CEO Tim Cook may be, or how prepared employees thought they were, “there’s still a sense of shock, that they’re starting over. And that will rattle employees who liked their boss,” said Ballinger.
Some employees who didn’t like Jobs will see the transition as an opportunity to advance their ideas and interests with Cook, Ballinger said. But 97 percent of employees approved of Jobs, according to Glassdoor.com, a community website where employees can anonymously rate the companies and bosses they work for. The website says it has reviews for 120,000 companies in 100 countries.
“We’ve collected more than 1,000 reviews from Apple employees. And from those reviews, Steve Jobs, we’ve found, is the third-highest-rated CEO on our website,” Glassdoor co-founder Tim Besse said in a video. “Employee morale is one of the key ways to keep talent around. So it will remain to be seen whether or not Tim Cook can kind of take the reigns and lead and inspire top talent the way that Steve Jobs has.”
Some Jobs fans at Apple may strike out on their own to create new companies or join other tech companies, but many will look up to Cook as carrying Jobs’ torch.
“When Steve is on stage, everyone has always marveled at his presence. He is the product. He’s a Mac or an iPhone, that’s what he is,” said Jay Elliot, author of The Steve Jobs Way and a former senior VP of Apple who worked closely with Jobs in the 1980s.
Elliot says he “saw Steve Jobs” in Cook onstage when Verizon announced the iPhone, and that Cook has picked up and learned from Jobs’ intensity for perfection.
That is where the biggest psychological challenge for Apple’s culture may arise.
Cook “must be humble enough to recognize that he will never be able to replace Steve Jobs,” said management researcher Suzanne Peterson of Arizona State University, “but strong enough to promote his own unique vision” and keep his identity separate from Jobs’.
The arrival of Cook also raises the question of how shifting from a creative to an operational leader will affect Apple’s cultlike culture, said University of Miami business researcher Marianna Makri, who examined the effects of leadership on innovation in a 2010 Leadership study.
Whereas Jobs was a creative leader who emphasized exploration and risk-taking, Cook’s core competence is operations. “In the short term, Apple will be able to benefit from ambidexterity,” having Cook as CEO and Jobs on the board, said Makri. “But in the long run, another creative leader will need to take the reins, in order for the Apple ‘cult’ to sustain itself.”
As the world watches Cook’s direction and Apple’s upcoming products, consumers will also weigh their loyalty.
“Any kind of uncertainty, even tiny amounts of ambiguity, have an effect on the brain moment-to-moment, creating an internal ‘threat’ or ‘danger’ response,” leadership researcher David Rock, co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, told Wired by e-mail. “The lack of certainty about how Apple will be managed now is likely to create general concern within and without Apple, even if their new team is fantastic.”
Several experts interviewed by Wired said most consumers who were thinking about switching to Apple products will likely wait to see what the company does before committing. For those already invested, however, marketing psychologist Bernd Schmitt of Columbia University echoed Rock’s assessment.
“Consumers feel closely attached with the Apple brand. And a major part of the Apple brand is Steve Jobs,” Schmitt wrote in an e-mail to Wired. “This is a critical time for Apple. They must watch consumers and their reactions closely.”