Tim Cook Coming into His Own

March 9th, 2016

Some suggest that a new corporate leader will need to grow into the role, take baby steps before finding the right management approach. Others, particularly those who have had previous experience as a CEO, will attempt to hit the ground running. They will try to leverage prior experience as a guide towards approaching their new position. This is particularly true if the company they are joining is in trouble.

But trying to apply what an executive did at one company to another doesn’t always work. So Ron Johnson had a tremendous amount of success working with Steve Jobs to create and grow the Apple Store retail chain. But when he was hired by a struggling J.C. Penney to rebuild the brand, he failed, utterly. Evidently he misunderstood customer needs and expectations in the effort to move the stores upscale, and he was soon given his walking papers.

When Tim Cook became the permanent Apple CEO, the move was both expected and greeted with skepticism. But he had already occupied that post for months on end due to Steve Jobs’ illness, and thus had clearly demonstrated his abilities.

But where Cook was once regarded as strictly a behind-the-scenes person who managed the supply chain, clearly he had skills that have enabled him to become perhaps the most vocal CEO on the planet. That surely has come as a surprise to many who thought he’d be a caretaker executive who’d keep Apple on an even keel and maybe pave the way towards another — unknown — executive, who’d take Apple forward.

It didn’t help that Apple had a checkered history with CEOs, and Steve Jobs was an outsized personality who would be difficult, if not impossible, to replace.

At first, it appeared that Cook was staying the course, though it was clear that he supported a more open policy at the top. He did a few things, such as encouraging employees to make charitable donations, which clearly signaled a new direction. Stock buybacks and other financial moves made it clear he understood the needs of Wall Street better than Jobs, who seemed to feel it was mostly a necessary annoyance and not much more.

Some might suggest that the corporate financial maneuvers were meant as substitutes for the lack of significant new products, but it doesn’t appear that product introductions have slowed. If anything, they appear to have sped up, though some might question whether such gadgets as the Apple Watch are as significant in the scheme of things as an iPhone or an iPad, let alone the Mac.

Nowadays, we have Tim Cook as the outspoken advocate for truth, justice and fairness to all. Revealing what was already known by many, that he is gay, he has stood for LGBT rights, and quite vocally.

Rather than remain in the background, Cook is appearing more and more on national TV shows, not to mention writing op-eds for major newspapers. With the current dispute between Apple and the FBI in full swing — and the outcome still uncertain — Cook has been in the forefront of advocating for Apple’s position about encrypting iPhones. It almost seems he’s everywhere, and even one of his key corporate lieutenants, Craig Federighi, has gotten into act with his own guest editorial about the matter.

As he gains experience on the public stage, he has not been shy about showing up in unexpected places, such as last September’s appearance on the “Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” Can you imagine Steve Jobs making so many personal appearances?

Cook has clearly become more outgoing. While he seemed stiff in his early keynotes, he has learned to allow his easy southern charm to come through, making him a pleasant, comforting advocate for Apple. It’s not overexposure, but a measured, carefully crafted approach to giving the company a public face. Some suggest he may, in the long run, have a far greater impact on Apple going forward. But his tenure is still young, and I have little doubt that there is speculation about his potential successor.

And, yes, I wouldn’t doubt that Cook has undergone some training to improve his public presentation. Such skills don’t always come naturally.

Maybe Federighi, who has a likable, sometimes funny, public demeanor, is being groomed as a potential successor. That may explain why he was tasked to write an op-ed for the Washington Post. But he’s also the voice of Apple’s software, so it was an ideal choice to write about the encryption controversy. Of course, cynics will wonder the extent to which he contributed to that article, and where it was, in whole or in part, ghostwritten for him by Apple’s corporate public relations staff. But the same can be said for Cook’s op-eds.

At the same time, Apple’s critics will continue to attack Cook as the wrong person in the wrong position. There continue to be “Jobs would never do that” complaints, despite the reports that Jobs told Cook never to pose such a question going forward.

It’s no doubt way too early in the game to judge the total impact of Cook’s reign as Apple CEO. Lots of unexpected things might occur that will complicate the company’s position and chances for ongoing success. But if he can weather the inevitable storms in good form, history will likely judge him well.

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