What happens when your leader IS your brand?

Most of us have bosses. Some of us have great CEOs. And a very precious few of us have what can only be referred to as a legend – the kind of iconic visionary who is responsible for making the brand what it is today in the eyes of many.

Of course, nobody is immortal. Time ensures we all move on, whether it is due to a new job, retirement or (not to be morbid), expiring. The challenge Apple faces today in the wake of Steve Jobs’ resignation as CEO (but he is staying on as Chairman) is no different than what Chrysler had to face in the post-Iacocca era, Ogilvy had to face without David Ogilvy, Disney without Walt or what Virgin will face when Richard Branson steps away someday. These are imaginative, charismatic, exciting people who not only shaped the foundation of their companies but have had influence far beyond it for managers in all kinds of industries. They are not just people associated with the brand. They ARE the brand.

What do you tell the world when they aren’t around on a daily basis anymore? Do you regret having linked to one person so strongly? Do you pretend it’s business as usual and no big deal?

It’s not a catastrophe as long as you remember a few key fundamentals before, during and after that transition for the good of your brand.

1. You don’t replace genius.
The world knows that. You’re not fooling anyone when you pretend that the person no longer involved in your company is no big deal. “Oh, yeah, he left but we’re humming along.” Give me a break. It’s about saying, “You don’t replace someone like him. He was remarkable. Fortunately, we’re a better positioned company today because of everything he’s done.” You don’t have to say you’re devastated and don’t know how you’re going to go on either. Which leads us to #2.

2. Show what the legacy has brought to your business and culture.
The Chicago Bulls couldn’t replace Michael Jordan. Hockey itself couldn’t replace Wayne Gretzky. But as a testament to their influence, they had disciples and students of their genius and skill. Steve Jobs has had the same and I’m sure Apple will take great steps to show how Jobs’ principles are alive and well even as he pulls back from responsibilities at the company. For example, Jobs was a master of stripping away technical elements that the consumer didn’t necessarily need – I doubt that Apple will suddenly become a company of unwieldy designed products now. They’ll keep this legacy strong if they can continue to show how they produce not just great products but magical feelings that make people salivate over what’s next. Great leaders have great influence and great respect long after they’re gone – how often do we hear architects and city planners in Chicago invoke the name of early 1900’s architect Daniel Burnham in an effort to stay true to his vision of the city today?

But again you ask, “isn’t Steve Jobs the primary person who triggers the emotion behind Apple with every introduction?” Yes. But that leads us to point #3.

3. Terrific leaders don’t leave the skill set cupboard bare when they leave.
If you believe Steve Jobs is a great leader – which I do – you know that he has been preparing his internal team for a moment when he was going to step away for some time now. And if you have ever studied the succession plans of companies that tend to do well in transition, fortune tends to favor those who select leaders from within who have understood the culture for quite some time – not a hard and fast rule, but a trend. In that context, can you imagine anyone better prepared to take on this responsibility than Tim Cook, a man who has been at Apple for over a decade and has already had to step in for Jobs once before? What about the talented people who have an eye not just for technological greatness but artistic beauty in what they create for Apple? Steve Jobs is a great thinker but to say he was the one and only visionary behind the iPad, iPhone or iCloud is doing his team a disservice.

4. Perception is reality. Think about experiences and emotions, not just dollars and cents.
You can talk about dollars, cents and profitability until the cows come home. But there’s an immeasurable quality of captivating customers like the past leader did that should be your goal just as much as earning revenue. People who take their eye off that function of branding and try to say that the company is in an even better place are fooling themselves. And I’m not just speaking externally – what’s the chemistry of your culture post-iconic leader? Is it just as fun of a place to be? If you used to be a magical place to work and have become just a profitable place to work, something is lost. Sure, technology must evolve and ways of doing business must evolve. But the spirit and vision that is the company’s reason for being must be just as inspiring to its people from one leader to the next. If you don’t have that, the promise of what your brand is all about rings a bit more hollow. I don’t think Mr. Cook will make the mistake at the next big Apple event of presenting just about profit and loss instead of trying to excite people for what’s next. I sure hope not.

5. With consistency and focus, you ensure the iconic leader leaves his mark on the brand forever.
None of us may live forever, but the more our successors can use our principles as a guiding force for why they do what they do, the more they honor us. More importantly, they keep the brand strong. If those principles fade because some new CEO from the outside wants to put his own stamp on things and forget all the good things done in the past, well, chances are the company probably loses its shine as well.

Most of us may never know what it’s like to work for a person so iconic that they become synonymous with the brand. But their leaving isn’t the tragedy – forgetting how they made the company great in the first place is.

Can you think of instances of where greatness transpired from one leader to the next? What about stumbles that could have been avoided? Of course, if you have a bold prediction for Apple’s future in the wake of Steve Jobs stepping back, I’d love to hear that too.

The Google Gap: Useful? Yes. Emotional Pull? Well…

A rather stunning irony occurred to me as I was thinking about the latest tool Google is introducing, Google Plus.

For all the tools I use from Google, I don’t believe I ever got extraordinarily excited about using them before or during the time I’ve actually used them.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a fan of certain tools and highly recommend them. In particular, I regularly use Google Calendar, Gmail, Google Reader and Google Alerts. I’d even describe them to others as “great.”

So what’s the problem? The problem is despite the fact that Google delivers a highly efficient, highly productive group of tools for me, none of these tools have stirred the senses with a “got to have it now” factor. And this wouldn’t be such a big deal if Google weren’t aiming to stand toe-to-toe with the likes of Facebook to be our all-everything place for connections, searching and relationships.

Say what you want about privacy issues, but Facebook owns a great deal of emotional investment from people. It’s the place where their family and friends commonly are when it comes to online community interaction, if not their business associates too. The technology to keep and enhance those connections is important, but technology is almost secondary to why people are there and stay there. This emotion is not to be underestimated.

Take another company, like Apple. Apple has the “got to have it now” factor in spades. It’s safe to say that for a large number of people like you, there’s been at least one Apple product released in the last 10 years that you really, really wanted….NOW. It’s why people had to have the iPod, stood in line for the iPhone and they’re salivating over the iCloud. And if you didn’t have it, you felt left behind. Even with the one product that met a bit more skepticism at first, the iPad, there’s little question now that people who bought into it love what it can do on a personal or business level.

And there it is – the “L” word. Love. There are many companies that produce useful, efficient, productive products that people buy and even keep buying…but don’t love them. This is coveted territory that not everybody can own. Dare I say that Google has never produced anything that’s, well, FUN. It’s never ENTERTAINED. Absolutely, it’s helped me get the job done, find what I’m looking for and keep me organized. But it’s never brought a lasting smile to my face.

Love isn’t always attained by adding more to an existing solution but actually stripping away what isn’t needed. One of my favorite examples here is 37 Signals with their Basecamp product for project management. There’s more emotional pull here not because it’s complicated but because it’s more simple than other tools with just enough to give me everything I need, nothing that I don’t. It doesn’t hurt that 37 Signals is great at customer service and exceedingly quick to inform its customers of enhancements or technical difficulties they’re working on.

And by the way, I didn’t have to wait for an invite to use their software.

Therefore, the Google Gap has nothing to do with technology but an emotional pull. A legion of fans that are passionate about spreading the word to others unsolicited because that product enhances their life just SO MUCH that they want the people they care about to experience that feeling too.

Never had that situation with Google. Never had a “Oh wow, you’ve got to try Gmail” moment. Instead, the exchange goes like this:

Them: “What’s your favorite calendar program?”
Me: “Google Calendar. It’s great.”

That’s not love – it may sound like it at first glance, but it’s not. That’s a positive recommendation that wouldn’t have come unless it was initiated by someone else. To close the Google Gap and be seen in a different light, Google Plus and future products from Google need to be more than just useful and efficient. We also don’t need versions that seem better in appearance but in practicality are more complicated to use.  They have to bring remarkable new categories of technology we haven’t used yet or dramatically strip away the complications of technology we’re using to the point of where it almost feels like a brand new category.

By virtue of his product line, Steve Jobs enjoys this emotional capital. By virtue of the relationships he has ownership over, so does Mark Zuckerberg. If Larry Page wants to stand on the platform with these gentlemen, this is the challenge before him to shape a new chapter of the Google era.