The Successors

Every year, researchers at the Drucker Institute (of Claremont Graduate University) compile a list of what they consider America’s best-run companies. This year’s list was published on December 13 by the Wall Street Journal, in a separate section on the “Top 250.”

Peter Drucker, after whom the Institute is named, has been called the “father of modern management.” His writings and teachings were prolific, and even posthumously (he died in 2005) his ideas remain influential. The Drucker Institute draws on his work to measure corporate effectiveness according to five criteria. They are 1) customer satisfaction; 2) employee engagement and development; 3) innovation; 4) social responsibility; and 5) financial strength.

This year the top five best-run companies are:

  1. Microsoft
  2. Amazon
  3. Apple
  4. IBM
  5. Intel

What stands out initially is the top five are all the same breed – tech giants. What stands out secondarily is that two of the top five are led by successors of founders, in one case an immediate successor, in another an almost immediate one.

Microsoft’s CEO and now chairman, Satya Nadella, did not follow Bill Gates. Gates’s longtime associate, Steve Ballmer, did. He was CEO of Microsoft from 2000 to 2014. But the consensus is that Ballmer’s tenure was less than lustrous, which is why Nadella’s gets credit for returning Microsoft the top of the tech hierarchy. By the above measures and then some, he is one of the great corporate leaders of our time. 

The same holds for Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, who has led the company since 2011, when he took over from company founder and guru, Steve Jobs. It was Jobs who appointed and anointed Cook as his successor. In fact, it was Jobs’s last miraculous, humungous accomplishment at Apple, for Cook has turned out a master manager. He is, like Nadella, is a chief executive officer for the ages.  

What’re the odds? What’re the odds that one great leader will be succeeded or nearly so by another great leader? They are not high. For greatness is by definition rare. Which is why betting that a company or any other entity will hit on two in close succession is a long shot – a very long shot.   

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