Tim Cook and “Imaginative CEOs”

July 20th, 2017

Over the years, there has been a perception that Tim Cook is not quite the master of innovation Steve Jobs was and thus not suited to lead Apple. After all, it was Jobs who, after his return to Apple in late 1996,  shepherded the introduction of the iMac, the iPod, the iPad, and, of course, the iPhone. And let’s not forget the Mac and the original Apple computers during the early years.

A seasoned CEO would be lucky to manage even one of these achievements, let alone all of them. His very appearance at an Apple event, or during a keynote address, signaled insanely great. He had this aura about him that some regarded as a “reality distortion field,” meaning he was such a talented salesperson that he could make you believe just about anything.

Legend has it that all or most of these products only exist because of Jobs’ uniqueness, that no other CEO could possibly have done as well. Forgotten was the fact that he had his failures, too. So, although NeXT is remembered for its innovative, Unix-based operating system that formed the basis of today’s macOS, the company failed at selling hardware, and was otherwise reduced to niche status before Apple acquired the company in 1996.

During his reign at Apple, Jobs had a few failures too, such as the Power Macintosh G4 Cube. Not everything he did was a smashing success. But none of it would have happened if Apple didn’t have a talented design team for Jobs to browbeat into submission.

So the usual perception is that Tim Cook may seem like the more proper CEO what with the way he’s handled investor issues, such as granting dividends, engaging in buybacks and other actions. His keynotes may not be quite as speculator as a Steve Jobs event, but he clearly rates higher than other CEOs.

But he’s also regarded as the behind-the-scenes geek, managing Apple’s supply chain and making it possible for all these products to be assembled efficiently and with a pretty high record of reliability.

That seems to be the case until you check out a report about the rating he’s achieved courtesy of a supercomputer from, believe it or not, IBM. So according to a published report at CNET, IBM Watson’s Personality Insights has delivered results that credit Tim Cook with being Silicon Valley’s “most imaginative” leader.

Now this is not an all-inclusive conclusion based on a large base of executives. Indeed, it only consists of 11, based on data from Paysa, a job search company. The sampling included the CEOs from Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft. The so-called Personality Insights report was based on “speeches, essays, books, transcripts of interviews and other forms of communication.”

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos was the runner-up.

Now I suppose, if you compare Cook to the heads of the largest tech companies, this survey may be right. But it’s still a pretty narrow sampling. That means that some quite extraordinary company leaders might never rate inclusion in this computerized analysis despite their future prospects.

The long and short of it is that, perhaps, among a select group of CEOs, Cook rates really high. Perhaps that Watson conclusion is essentially correct. But you’d never believe a Gallup poll with such a small sampling.

While I have no doubt that Cook is highly imaginative, and he’s certainly become a more confident performer as he continues to make public appearances, that doesn’t mean he’s the best of the breed. But it’s also clear that Apple has done incredibly well under his leadership. You can argue that another executive might have had a sharper vision for our tech future. You might argue that Cook may have given too much power to the likes of Sir Jonathan Ive, and thus allowed him too many indulgences, such as a penchant for thinner and lighter above all else.

Or perhaps none of that is true. After all, Jobs basically made Ive a star. But since few know what Apple is actually doing behind the scenes, except what they tell us and what some former employees might be revealing (if true), most of the conclusions about the company’s design process are little more than fake news. Or maybe corporate spin.

What is true is that Apple became the number one company on the planet, by market cap, under Cook. He took a smartphone and sold it to hundreds of millions of people in the years after Steve Jobs said he’d be happy if the iPhone had a market share of one percent.

As much as I’m skeptical about this computerized analysis, I’m just as skeptical of the people who claim Cook was the wrong choice to succeed Jobs at Apple because he’s not a product person. So far, at least, he’s done pretty well, and has become the most popular CEO on the planet. You can’t complain about that, and you don’t need a questionable computer survey to confirm that view.

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