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Steve Jobs' Resignation Offers a Big Lesson for Small-Biz Owners

The Apple CEO's departure was abrupt, but it wasn't chaotic. And it illustrates the role that succession planning should play in any successful business.

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The day many people expected and dreaded for months has arrived. Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs resigned late Wednesday. In his place, veteran Apple executive Tim Cook will assume leadership of the company.

The orderliness of the succession is a vivid management lesson for every entrepreneur and small-business owner who has struggled, or is struggling, with when and how to step aside.

The resignation itself was rather undramatic. In a letter to the Apple board, Jobs said that he could no longer fulfill his duties as CEO. He requested to remain as chairman, a request the Apple board promptly granted. Jobs has been publicly struggling with cancer for years, and he has been on medical leave since January, although he did not explicitly state that his health was the reason for his resignation.

In his resignation letter, Jobs also "strongly" recommended that Apple's board carry out the succession plan already in place and name Apple COO Tim Cook, who served as acting CEO during Jobs' previous medical leaves, as the company's chief executive.

Although people inside and outside the company have complained for years that Apple wasn't transparent enough about its succession plans, Cook's appointment was pretty much a foregone conclusion. The wording of Jobs' letter is clear: Cook is the guy he wants to lead Apple into the future. And that is extremely important.

"I believe Apple's brightest and most innovative days are ahead to it," Jobs stated in his letter. "And I look forward to watching and contributing to its success in a new role."

There are few business leaders who are not well acquainted with Jobs' storied career. His resignation this week actually marks the end of his second reign as Apple's CEO. Since retaking control of Apple in 1997, Jobs embarked Apple on a 14-year period of technology innovation and business success that really has no precedent in U.S. business history.

In the spirit of transparency, I should disclose that I actually worked at Apple for the summer of 1985, right after Jobs was forced to leave the company he had founded by the CEO he had hand-picked, John Sculley. The mood there was subdued and pessimistic, largely because of the ugly Sculley-Jobs power struggle. It was clear that this was not the path that Jobs had wanted, and that unsettled the eager engineers and marketers who led Apple in the 1980s.

I'm sure that the mood at Apple today is very different, because Cook's ascension is clearly the path that Jobs wants the company to follow. Are Apple employees sad? I expect so. Are they pessimistic? I doubt it.

After all, aside from hiring Tim Cook, Jobs was smart enough to bring on board one of the most brilliant industrial designers of all time, Jonathan Ive, chief creator of Apple's notebook computers not to mention the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad.

Although it may seem inconceivable to any entrepreneurial small-business owner that a time must come to let go of your creation, planning for a seamless transition is the most important decision you can make after starting a company in the first place. From the day an entrepreneur decides to become a small-business owner, the focus must shift from being all about you to being all about the team.

Walt Disney Co. and Wal-Mart Stores are two great examples of companies that were closely associated with charismatic founders and CEOs. Yet both companies successfully crossed the bridge into the future by carefully selecting future leaders.

Let's be clear: As Apple's chairman, the company will still feel Steve Jobs' influence. Health issues aside, one might even argue that the 56-year-old entrepreneur will have the opportunity to be even more creative, now that he is officially free of the worries that day-to-day management responsibilities bring.

Even though Apple is a huge company, it wasn't always that way. Every small-business owner would do well to study Jobs' example -- learning from his ego-driven mistakes and drawing inspiration from the classy manner in which he decided to let go.

And when Jobs decided to go, he didn't look for someone who was just like him. He looked for the right leader to guide the team Apple has built over the years.

Isn't it high time that you got to work finding your replacement?



Heather Clancy is an award-winning business journalist with a passion for small businesses, green technology and corporate sustainability issues. Her articles have appeared in Entrepreneur, Fortune Small Business, The International Herald Tribune and The New York Times. Follow her on Twitter.

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