The two big corporate leadership names in the news this week — Steve Jobs and Larry Page — have something big in common. And while we're at it, let's include a third member of the club: Mark Zuckerberg. The common factor in all their careers is adult supervision.
All three needed it as youthful founders. But it's interesting to note that they got it in different forms. In Steve Jobs' case, it was from Mike Markkula, the former Intel manager who launched Apple along with the two Steves (the other being Wozniak) and who cycled through various senior roles — for a while looking like he would outlast them both. The two Google guys, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, hired on Eric Schmidt as CEO when it became clear their company's growth was outstripping the growth of their management capabilities. Mark Zuckerberg brought in Sheryl Sandberg at the same kind of moment in Facebook's trajectory, but made her COO instead, retaining the CEO title for himself.
Those are not subtle distinctions. In a learning situation, it matters very much whether the dynamic you have set up is the relationship of equals, of sensei to student, or of advisor to king.
Thus we have a fascinating natural experiment underway. If we're curious to know which form of adult supervision is best — which is to say, which really prepares the founder to take the reins — we have at least this small sample to learn from.
My prediction is that there will be many more data points to add to that study in the coming years — and finding out what works best will become more and more valuable. That's because we can expect to see more youthful leaders of more fast-scaling enterprises. The new & important always comes from the fringe, which in most cases means from the young, who aren't captive to old structures and ways. And it's now it's almost shockingly easy for a young visionary to stand up a groundbreaking business, rather than going hat in hand with their invention to a mogul with the power to make it happen.
At the same time, the need for the help of veterans won't be going away, especially as the scale of modern enterprises soars. Managing at scale is its own skill set, and hard-won. Few young founders have logged enough career time to have risen up through ranks and learned to lead a vast enterprise confidently. Add to this the fact that launching a business involves tapping into networks and gaining access to resources still held in the last generation's hands.
There's a reason, in other words, that we never heard the term "adult supervision" in a business context before Apple, but we hear it all the time now. Conditions have changed to make it more necessary and more common, and that trend will continue. So, if we're lucky, some smart management scholar will figure out how to do a real study of what works and how.
For the moment, the rest of us can only offer hypotheses. Mark Zuckerberg might turn out to be the better CEO for having forced himself to learn on the job. Or Larry Page might emerge the more capable having watched Eric Schmidt show him how it's done. Or maybe it will turn out that Steve Jobs had the right approach. Maybe it's best to keep various adults on hand, while never moving far from the playground.