How to Successfully Fill the Shoes of a Larger-Than-Life Founder

What we can learn from the failures and successes of Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs and more

Driving relevance means driving growth. Join global brands and industry thought leaders at Brandweek, Sept. 11–14 in Miami, for actionable takeaways to better your marketing. 50% off passes ends April 10.

For many first-generation tech companies, their brands are synonymous with the people who created, nurtured and passionately grew them to what they are today. These founders define the brain trust, values, purpose and aesthetic of their companies, setting the bar for their customer experience and relationship.

Founders like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos are larger than life. Part visionary, part ringmaster, we hang on their every move. They create and leave big shoes to fill. And as they move on, the transition for the brand and its next CEO can be smooth or rocky depending on a range of factors: market performance, leadership team, product lifecycle, culture—and the founder’s second life.

So, considering Bezos’ departure from Amazon as its CEO, brand leaders should ask: What lessons can we take away from those who went before? How can the brands harness the established values and origin story of their founders? And what, if any, baggage might be best left in the past?

Lesson 1: Failure can lead to success

We often forget or put aside the business mistakes and flaws of founders, placing them on a pedestal. But we can learn as much from their very human failings and how they recovered as we do from their successes.

We’ve seen many founders, including Michael Dell, step back in when their brands lose direction. Arguably the legacy and success of Steve Jobs’ second stint at Apple owes much to the lessons from and after his first. While his first tenure gave us the iconic Macintosh, his second—in partnership with Tim Cook—was more open, focusing as much on product as operations to create a voice and cultural ecosystem, and thus a foundation for continued growth.

Failures can be a good thing, according to what Bezos wrote in a shareholders’ letter: “If the size of your failures isn’t growing, you’re not going to be inventing at a size that can actually move the needle.” Take the Amazon Fire Phone. While the product itself was a misfire, it led to building Echo and Alexa.

Brand leaders can learn from the failures of those before them, but they should also embrace their own.

Lesson 2: Define your own path

In filling the shoes of an iconic founder, the pressures on the new CEO are multifold: protect the business you’ve just been handed the keys to; establish a new vision for innovation and growth; install a new leadership team; compete with the legacy of the founder to establish your own brand.

In taking over from Bill Gates at Microsoft, Steve Ballmer inherited a business he helped to build. And while his tenure saw increased sales and profitability, the brand lost much of its luster as it missed out on new technologies, including the web and smartphones.

As a pairing, Gates and Ballmer complemented each other’s skill sets: Gates in technology and Ballmer in business. In taking over from Ballmer, Satya Nadella inherited a business ready for change. He quickly pivoted resources to new platforms, including cloud computing and reestablishing the brand’s technology leadership and mojo.

Technology is constantly evolving and requires us to do so, too. While brand leaders should respect the foundation of the brand they are given, they must also remember that the brand, the company and its innovations were built by challenging conventions of their time. To succeed, incoming CEOs need to do so as well.

Lesson 3: Mission over personality

In looking at older, more established brands, we can examine and learn what role the founder’s legacy plays today and in the future.

Bill Hewlett and David Packard’s origin story of humble beginnings in a garage; Jobs’ and Steve Wozniak’s ingenuity and resourcefulness in assembling their first product; Medtronic co-founder Earl Bakken’s defining mission to alleviate pain, restore health and extend life—these stories serve as a foundation for their brand values and fuel the innovation and growth for the next generation of leadership and employees. The brands these people built did not start in a fancy office or with the latest fancy equipment, but with an idea, gumption and grit.

A founder’s origin story can be a keystone of a company’s culture. Stories can help connect us and ground us in a common set of values. To succeed, brand leaders must continue to fuel and update that brand story, with respect to the past but an eye toward ushering it into the future.

Adweek magazine cover
Click for more from this issue

This story first appeared in the Sept. 13, 2021, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.