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Steve Jobs' Resignation Fuels Debate Over Smooth Succession To New Chief

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In corporate America, a changing of the guard is taking place: An iconic leader has stepped down, fueling endless speculation about his successor's ability to fill the void.

Steve Jobs' resignation Wednesday as Apple's chief executive has raised questions of whether the company can continue its success under new leadership. While some details of Jobs' departure have the hallmarks of a smooth succession, others resemble rocky handoffs at companies where the founder has ceded the helm, experts say.

"There are successions that are thoughtful and well planned out and ones that are thrust upon you and every shade in between," said John Wood, vice chairman of the leadership consulting firm Heidrick & Struggles.

In his resignation letter, Jobs recommended that Apple's board of directors name Tim Cook as the next chief executive. Cook has taken over the leadership role at Apple several times while Jobs was on medical leave.

The handoff to a well-groomed successor is a common strategy when appointing a new chief executive, experts say. Other signs of a positive transition are when a successor has a solid relationship with the founder and has prior experience in the company, according to Noam Wasserman, a professor at Harvard Business School.

As examples of seamless shifts to new leaders, experts cited Louis V. Gerstner Jr. turning over the reins of IBM to Samuel J. Palmisano, Andrew Grove ceding the leadership role of Intel to Craig R. Barrett and Jack Welch passing the baton to Jeffrey Immelt at General Electric.

But other transitions have been rockier. In some cases, a founder has remained in a central role despite being replaced, causing tension with the new chief executive.

One example was when Nike founder Phil Knight ceded the chief executive spot to his successor, William Perez, who then resigned after only 13 months, citing disagreements with Knight over how to lead the company.

Similar to Knight, Jobs will remain Apple's chairman of the board and is widely expected to keep a hands-on role in the company, an arrangement that Cook will need to accept in his new role as Apple's chief executive, Wasserman said.

"It's extremely hard for most founders to only be 'half involved' with their 'baby,'" said Wasserman, author of the upcoming book "The Founder’s Dilemmas.”

In other cases, an iconic leader has stepped down and his presence was felt perhaps too deeply. After the death of Walt Disney in 1966, Disney executives remained bound to his vision for several years, often asking, "What would Walt have done?" while making decisions, said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a dean at the Yale School of Management.

"They pretty much began a religious worship of whatever Walt had done and didn't want to do anything to tamper with that formula," said Sonnenfeld, author of "The Hero's Farewell," a book on CEO succession. "They were just riding the coattails of what Walt pioneered, but they had stopped pioneering."

To avoid upheaval, corporate boards have increasingly focused on planning a successor, even when times are good, Wood said. While boards once considered it awkward to discuss a new chief executive while the current one was still in charge, they now put leadership searches near the top of their agendas, Wood said.

"It's one of the biggest evolutions in corporate governance in the last five or six years," he said.

In Apple's case, though, the board's decision was relatively easy, according to Wood. The successor was obvious and Jobs' departure was anticipated given his ailing health, Wood said.

"Apple's board obviously had time to think this through, had an excellent internal choice and pulled it off with a great deal of grace."

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