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Tim Cook Is No Steve Jobs… And That May Be A Good Thing

2015 February 4
by Greg Satell

There’s no doubt Tim Cook has a very tough job.  When he stepped in as CEO of Apple he was following in the footsteps of one of the most—if not the most—iconic entrepreneurs in history.  Every step would be scrutinized by a legion of die hard fans and magnified a thousandfold.

Yet Cook has performed admirably.  The stock has more than doubled since he took over in August 2011 and Apple just posted the best quarter for any company ever.  Despite aggressive share buybacks, the company is still sitting on a mountain of cash—more than $170 billion!

Tim Cook is no Steve Jobs and that may actually be a good thing.  Unlike the bombastic Apple founder, he’s been even-keeled, launching no vendettas and creating no controversies. Although there has been a lack of blockbuster launches, the company is an operational wunderkind.   Here’s how Cook is doing things differently than his famous predecessor.

Partnership Over Prickliness

While Steve Jobs was loved by consumers, he was in many ways less popular in Silicon Valley.  His mercurial personality made him famously hard to work with and that, combined with his passion for controlling every aspect of the user experience, made it difficult for Apple to forge effective partnerships with other companies.

In a joint interview with Bill Gates shortly before he died, Jobs himself acknowledged the problem.

 

You know, because Woz and I started the company based on doing the whole banana, we weren’t so good at partnering with people. And, you know, actually, the funny thing is, Microsoft’s one of the few companies we were able to partner with that actually worked for both companies. And we weren’t so good at that, where Bill and Microsoft were really good at it because they didn’t make the whole thing in the early days and they learned how to partner with people really well.

 

Cook has been considerably more successful in this regard.  Take the new partnership with IBM, which gives Big Blue unique access to Apple’s development team while at the same time allowing Apple to leverage IBM’s strong enterprise sales capabilities.  It’s hard to imagine Jobs being able to pull that one off.

Still, Cook has somehow managed to stay true to the values that makes Apple the company that it is.  Not only does the deal give Apple greater reach into the lucrative enterprise  business—which has long been a weak spot—it gives Cook and his team greater control over the end product than if IBM were developing apps alone.

Incremental Innovation Instead Of Remaking Industries

Steve Jobs was an incredible creative force.  Soon after returning to Apple, he launched the iPod, iPhone, Apple Store and iPad in quick succession, redefining entire industries in the process.  It was his ability to see what we wanted before we even knew we wanted it that made him unlike anyone else.

Cook, on the other hand, has made few waves.  Apple Pay, while promising, is merely an incremental innovation, notable mostly because Apple is doing it.  It may be better than PayPal or Google Wallet, but it’s not tremendously different.  The jury is still out on the iWatch, but only the most rabid Apple fans think it will be another iPhone.

What’s crucial to understand is that Apple is a much, much bigger company than when Jobs ran it with a considerably larger stable of products.  Yet still, as John Gruber points out, the company is still able to put out exciting new products every year, with innovative features and cutting edge performance, and then deliver tens of millions of them without a hitch.

No company on earth can match that record of speed, scale and quality performance. Nobody.

Will Tim Cook Be The New Steve Ballmer?

It’s hard to talk about Apple without mentioning Microsoft at some point.  Both Tim Cook and Steve Ballmer took over iconic companies from legendary CEO’s.  Ballmer was held in such low regard that PandoDaily proclaimed him the worst CEO ever.  Can Cook avoid the same fate?

To be honest, I have a different view of Ballmer’s tenure.  Yes, the stock didn’t perform well while he was at the helm, but then again he took over at the height of the bubble when Microsoft was massively overvalued.   He also missed the shift to mobile, losing out on one of the great opportunities in history.

On the other hand, he created a string of billion dollar businesses, introduced Xbox and Kinect (which at the time was the fastest selling consumer device ever) and more than doubled the size of Microsoft’s business.  When he handed the reins over to Satya Nadella it was the third most valuable company in the world, had operating margins of over 30% and over $70 billion in cash.

If Cook remains CEO for a decade or more, it’s likely that he, like Ballmer, will miss a major shift.  But if he continues to operate the company well, Apple investors will be well served (Disclosure: I’m a passive investor in a fund which includes Apple in its holdings).

The Difference Between An Entrepreneur And An Executive

Steve Jobs was a legendary entrepreneur, maybe the best ever.  Like many entrepreneurs, he was creative and mercurial, often prickly, but never boring.  He dreamed up new products and established entirely new markets.  Yet the last thing Apple needs now is another Steve Jobs.

Today, Apple is no underdog, but an incredibly large and complex business, with $200 billion in revenues and a massive supply chain.  It doesn’t need to create new blockbusters as much as it needs to build on the ones it already has.  That in itself is an incredibly hard job and, at this point, Tim Cook seems to be very good at it.

That’s the difference between an entrepreneur and an executive.  Entrepreneurs are poets, thinking up big ideas and inspiring others with the power of their vision.  Executives manage in prose, making sure that things run smoothly and meeting the needs of employees, partners and consumers.

These are bright days for Apple.  Surely, there will be darker ones ahead.  No company can avoid a misstep now and then or a string of bad luck.  But in either case, Apple is lucky to have Tim Cook running the company.

– Greg

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