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BlackBerry and Apple: A Tale of Two CEOs

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The unthinkable has happened -- Apple's brand value has dropped for the first time; demand for the iPhone is waning; share prices have declined; and Apple seems to have lost the its spot as the World's Most Valuable Company. Meanwhile, equally improbable, RIM (now BlackBerry) is seemingly rising from the ashes. Shares of BlackBerry have gained 26 per cent this year . Even its toughest critics believe it may be making a comeback. Yet, for their differences in fortune, the fates of both companies have been inextricably linked to the role played by CEO succession.

Both organizations can be commended for choosing to promote from within -- a move typically considered to be "best practice" and associated with the World's Most Admired Organizations. Both organizations can be commended for having a successor named at the ready, eliminating an extended period of uncertainty. This is where similarities stop.

Steve Jobs: the Rockstar

Apple was in the unenviable position of having to replace a rock star CEO, at the top of his game, whose power and status overshadowed likely successor's. It appears, at least publicly, that not much had been done to prepare the investor community for a successor. Back in 2011, I reflected on one potential gap from a succession planning perspective, and with more than one year under Tim Cook's belt, it's worth a revisit to see if it played out as I expected.

At the time, I believed there may not have been careful consideration of the role requirements. While Cook clearly was accomplished, there was a potential shortcoming in what he brought to the table for the role. A key strategic requirement for Apple is innovation. Yet Cook, by all accounts was not, and is not, primarily an innovator. He had defined himself in terms of operations -- a keeper of the vision, not the developer of a vision.

At the time, I pointed out that it may be enough over the short term, with innovations already in the funnel and a vision that was well-established, but I questioned whether it would be enough over the longer term. Is this bearing out? Per Lindberg, an analyst at ABG Sundal Collier in London, wrote in a recent research report: "The iPhone is no longer unique, fashion fatigue will transpire and the rich price premium will be impossible to sustain." Similarly, Jim Cramer of CNBC's Mad Money, points out (Jan 23, 2013) that,"right now the street isn't convinced that there is a knock-out product in the pipeline."

Thorsten Heins: the Face of Change

Meanwhile, back at BlackBerry, shares have rallied. It may be that there was nowhere to go but up for the troubled tech giant, but there are signs that BlackBerry may actually be making a comeback. While it is difficult to pin it on just one event, it is useful to revisit succession here as well. Thorsten Heins did not face the same challenge confronting Cook -- having to overcome Jobs' popularity -- but he did face his own challenges. Back in early 2012, almost a year to the day, I noted that Heins would need to show the investor community that he wasn't more of the same. He would have to retain what's good and stay true to BlackBerry's values. He would also need to recognize that the time has come to make serious changes, even if they may not be popular internally.

His success here has been mixed, but by all accounts change has come, and within his first year Heins showed an openness to selling off hardware and overhauling BlackBerry software.

The lesson learned from these two similar-but-different cases -- think about role requirements, not just immediately, but down the line and make sure that any successor has the core capabilities to capture your company's vision.

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