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When Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced he would take a medical leave of absence, there was one question burning in the minds of shareholders, investors, and the general public.

What happens now?

Tim Cook, chief operating officer, will be at the helm for the company’s major products for now. However, this is the third time that Apple shareholders were faced with news that Jobs will take a prolong length of absence. Jobs’ most recent departure puts Apple’s succession issues back in the public eye.

Jobs founded the company in 1976 and he is still the main driving force behind all of Apple’s innovations. There have been virtually no reports on who will take over for Apple when Jobs steps down. Some are concerned that there is not a succession plan in place.

In January 2011, Apple urged its shareholders to reject a proposal at the following month’s annual meeting calling for the company to “adopt and disclose a written CEO succession policy”. In the statement, the company’s board said publishing a plan would impact their ability to attract executive talent and would give competitors an unfair advantage.

Still, long-term shareholders want the assurance that the company does have a succession plan.

This then calls into question – who will be the next Apple CEO?

Finding a replacement for Jobs, the breakthrough innovator and person of influence, is extremely difficult. The next leader will most likely have to come from within the company.

A Wall Street Journal reporter made the point that to further instill investor confidence, Apple needs to pull back the curtain on its development process and highlight some of the individuals who have helped usher in the iPhone and iPad. Jobs can’t be the only innovator in the company, right?

There is research that successful companies need to better value and leverage their Individual Contributors (IC’s) and provide these individuals development tools. Utilizing proven tools like 360 Feedback for IC’s can help spot and develop tomorrow’s leaders.

The company could already be utilizing development tools to aid a succession plan or it may not – shareholders and the public have no idea. Apple may need to make a succession plan transparent, or its stock may come under pressure because of questions of who will succeed Jobs at the helm.

It will be interesting to see what move Apple makes next.

What are you thoughts about Apple and a succession plan? Who could replace Steve Jobs?

Sources: Wall Street Journal, Director of Finance Online