Imagine Apple without Steve Jobs. Virgin without Richard Branson. Unthinkable? Yet, General Electric has had to survive without Thomas Edison. Ford Motor Company survived without Henry Ford. HP figured out how to thrive without Bill Hewlett and David Packard. More recently, Microsoft formulated a plan to (hopefully) survive without Bill Gates.
Yet, longevity is not a given. As my friends at famous jeansmaker Levi Strauss & Co. remind me, it’s ‘easy’ to launch a start-up company with the booster rockets of entrepreneurial flair and a spirited press. But much different to hold the reins of a company with 100+ years of organizational tradition and hierarchies.
One of the things that helps great companies endure—aside from innovation and product—is culture. Companies that survive their founders have a community and a culture uniquely their own. If that culture is attractive, consumers are drawn to them like iron filings to a magneto. The act of creating such enduring culture is one of the key responsibilities of leadership.
Culture is created by the leader. For years, Steve Jobs seems to have adopted the dictum of wily United States Civil War General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson who said, “Always mystify, mislead, and surprise the enemy.” Jobs proclaims that no one will ever watch video on tiny one-inch monitors, and three months later launches Nano Video. Jobs announces that few will want to read a book on a handheld digital device, then launches the iPad. What next?
For all the best reasons, Steve Jobs has inspired millions with his repeat innovation and balls-out bravado. A college dropout, Jobs has trampled MBA rivals with masterful strokes that leave the watchful giddy.
But can Apple continue to be as wily, artful and successful after Steve Jobs leaves—as he inevitably must?
That depends in no small way on creating the internal brand community. Companies are communities led by a brand narrative that begins with, “Here’s how we started….” They have a credo and mission statement, which are not always the same thing. (Google has a mission to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful. But internally, Google admonishes co-workers, “Don’t be evil.” We don’t want to be like Microsoft.)
All companies have icons or totems that represent them: logos and business cards and office space and corporate campuses as well as the products they create. Companies also have their own way of working: rituals embedded with icons create behaviors that impact the internal brand community.
Meeting spaces, for example, are iconic: if a company habitually conducts meetings at the corporate cafeteria, that’s a different pattern of behavior than meeting in a conference room space with glass panels, or closed wooden walls. At Best Buy headquarters in Bloomington, Minnesota—the largest retailer of consumer electronics in the U.S.A.—meetings are often held at the company’s coffee shop located inside the headquarters building.
If employees are expected to work after hours, through lunch hours and weekends, that’s also a corporate rite. These behaviors define the company culture, and the way we work.
What happens inside those meeting spaces also defines corporate behavior. Steve Jobs, for example, is infamous for telling teams their ideas are “stupid”. He has told individuals they are idiots. Morons. While this may not always sit well with the team, it’s hard to object with a leader with a track record like Steve Jobs. It’s also a tactic that does not always fall under management best practices, and is something whoever follows Jobs will have to grapple with.
Nonetheless, such no-bullshit direction has allowed Apple to be fleet as well as fickle. It has given them strategic advantage while other (often much larger) companies sludge through hierarchies and rote.
Language is also culture. Even within the same industry, companies have different terms, or ways of describing functions and what they do. Remember the last time you started a new job? You spent the first few weeks learning all the new words, all the jokes and anecdotes everyone else knew, as you tried to ‘fit in’ to the company community.
When a driven, dynamic figure like Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, Oprah, or Richard Branson leaves the helm, they leave a spiritual vacuum (and a way of working) that is often difficult to replace. There is visceral loss of direction—an absence that is hopefully only momentary. The corporate hallways “feel different”. People lose perspective and motivation. These environments can quickly become toxic even for long-standing, cherished employees.
Successful leaders remember that brands are ecosystems. There is a period biologists call punctuated equilibrium that follows when something catastrophic like an earthquake, fire, hurricane, or other natural catastrophe occurs. (The loss of a leader is, of course, a natural catastrophe.) It is a time of chaos, confusion, as natural forces work to restore balance.
It is during these punctuation points that successful leaders remind everyone in the corporate community (employees, shareholders, vendors, and key stakeholders alike) of the corporate mission and purpose. Why we come to work in the morning.
(By the way, this is also when headhunters typically try to pick off the best innovators, managers, and department heads.)
For HP that purpose is to Invent. Samsung tells us they want to Turn on tomorrow. Apple wants to Think different. On its corporate website, Virgin claims to stand for, “value for money, quality, innovation, fun and a sense of competitive challenge.” Such ideals are important.
Successful leaders during these interims must remind everyone that each person plays a role in the continuing company narrative. The new leader links past with present and reminds individuals that, while there may be a new face in the leader’s office, their skill and accomplishment are a critical part of the company’s continuing saga. The company stands for what it has always stood for. The company will continue to thrive.
This is important. In a world when many products are commoditized, or can be imitated within months, sometimes what you really need to differentiate your company is not only a better product, but a better story. It is, of course, much easier to tell a story that has an organic, true and original beginning. Two brothers get into a fight over the family business in Herzogenaurach, Germany and that’s why today we have both Puma and Adidas athletic shoe brands. Thomas Edison invented the electric lightbulb and created GE. Samsung was (and is still) a cement company. These are great stories. Not every company has such wonderful beginnings. It’s a challenge, but in its soul, every company was started by someone facing desperate odds. Many of them quit their jobs, didn’t have money, and their families might have starved had they not been unsuccessful. It is too easy to look back and say, “Oh, GE is such a successful company. How could that have been so difficult?” I think Thomas Edison might have a different opinion.
These are important messages that, while often declared, are less often felt. There is frequently genuine skepticism surrounding new leadership. Leaders have surprisingly little time to gather the community around them—and must act quickly to seize the reins.
As ecosystems, brands must be fed and watered and pruned and cared for. Routine can harden into rote. Success can become complacency. These are evils. Leaders must remind themselves that all over the world, people work days, nights, weekends, sacrificing personal lives, families, even their own health in order to create the next great piece of software, the next DNA breakthrough, the next incredible car design, the next game-changing idea.
These people are driven by something beyond getting a weekly paycheck. Not unlike the founding entrepreneur—whether they be Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, Oprah, or Richard Branson—they are emboldened by a higher ideal.
That ideal is infinitely larger than the founding leader, or even the company itself. It is a crazy notion—nay, a belief—that things can be better. It is a passion for excellence combined with a personal commitment to somehow change the world.
Successful leadership remembers that the company story and those ideals are something that can be controlled, measured, and purposefully engineered. This is how brands not only endure but prosper, long after the original founder has left the building.