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Does Tim Cook Need to Watch His Back?

Although most of the attention on Apple in recent years has focused on Steve Jobs, Tim Cook, and product designer Sir Jonathan Ive, yet another executive has loomed as a star in Apple’s bullpen. These days, Scott Forstall, no stranger to Apple’s media events, works as a senior vice president in charge of the iOS. That’s a serious job, inasmuch as the iOS drives most of Apple’s sales.

So what’s the story about Forstall? Well, getting serious coverage these days is yet another book about Apple, “Inside Apple: How America’s Most Admired — and Secretive — Company Really Works,” by Adam Lashinsky. Unlike the best selling biography of Steve Jobs from Walter Isaacson, Lashinsky’s book is definitely not authorized by Apple, and it’s clear they must be uncomfortable with some of the content. One huge example is the report that Forstall has the hots for the CEO spot.

Certainly Forestall has the right background. He came to Apple by way of NeXT, becoming one of the key architects of Mac OS X before moving on to the iOS. In many ways, he is regarded as a Steve Jobs in the waiting, with an obsession to detail, and a credible skill as a presenter at media events. Certainly, I’ve seen him on stage at some Apple presentations, in person or via an online feed, and he does appear to have the chops to deliver the goods in a public setting.

Recalling Jobs and his severe treatment of employees, Forstall is also described as being quite difficult to work with, resulting in the departure of some executives. Supposedly he’s also been consolidating his power in the hopes that, some day, he’ll replace Cook when the latter moves on or retires.

All right, reports of political byplay in major corporations are nothing new and not uncommon or unexpected. No doubt there are other executives who might wish to assume the top spot some day. Certainly, Sir Jonny has been named as a potential CEO candidate.

But I don’t presume to be able to read anyone’s mind. Since Lashinsky’s book wasn’t officially sanctioned by Apple, I very much doubt if he had a chance to speak to current Apple executives on or off the record. No doubt he got his information from examining the public record, and speaking with former Apple employees or perhaps competitors to paint a picture of what goes on behind closed doors.

Besides, touting exclusive material about internal discord at Apple is bound to sell books. It has certainly drawn attention from the mainstream media. Evidence of a chink in Apple’s united front would certainly be a compelling story — at least if it was true, and I honestly have no idea what to make of it.

Surely, there are egos aplenty in any large and successful corporation. At the same time, smart executives surely know that they have to keep their ambitions in check if they want their employer to succeed. Apple went through a tragic period where corporate egos clashed, resulting in near failure of the company. When Steve Jobs returned, that failure was weeks away.

I would think that, regardless of his needs and desires, Forstall is smart enough to know not to do anything that would hurt the company. If his ambitions become too naked, he could risk repercussions from other executives, particularly the CEO. Apple must work as a tightly-knit team for the entire enterprise to succeed.

Then again, corporate politics has to be about risk taking. The executive on the move has to know when to swing and when to hold back. However good Forstall may be at his job, few employees are irreplaceable. There are no doubt other people at Apple, coming up through the ranks, who are potential executive material, perhaps even CEO candidates at some point in time. If Jobs’ plans to continue to embed the Apple Way into the DNA of key employees has been successful, that would be a given.

It would also be dangerous for an ambitious executive to push to hard too fast. If that executive doesn’t get what is desired, would such a person look elsewhere, or do something that would impede the company’s success?

But it’s also possible that Forstall’s ambitions and history at Apple are being amplified in order to sell books, and spread a story that isn’t quite true. I wouldn’t presume to know, but certainly Tim Cook is a savvy enough executive to know that vultures may be circling, that he needs to watch his back very carefully to make sure his authority, his goals, and his work isn’t being somehow hampered by people who have the own agendas.

Certainly, Cook is legendary in the business as a hard negotiator, particularly in dealing with Apple’s suppliers. I expect he is just as wary in working with his key executives, knowing full way that some might be delighted to take control if the opportunity arose. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was true even when Steve Jobs was in charge.