Steve Jobs’ resignation has come as a shock to many. Amidst the speculation of whether Jobs resigned because of repeated health concerns and cancer treatment, it is rather interesting to listen to analysts trying to determine whether Jobs should have asked investors first before he stepped down. Another much more enticing discussion is the future of Tim Cook, Jobs’ replacement. One possible scenario is that he will share the same fate as Steve Ballmer.
Some time ago, when the concerns over Jobs’ health became more serious, there was a debate about whether Jobs – given his tight integration with the Apple brand – was still his own property or if he really belonged to Apple’s investors. In the end, Apple’s health was discussed as a risk factor for investors. Likewise, investors are evaluating Cook’s future and whether he will succeed in his new role. Can he succeed? If so, at what can he succeed?
Defining Tim Cook’s Job
I doubt that Cook will assume the same role that Jobs had as CEO. Jobs was an early Silicon Valley visionary, the celebrity in the industry and an icon who was often compared to a religious leader with millions of followers. How can anyone even start to believe that these shoes can be filled by any one human being?
Cook’s job cannot be defined as replacing Jobs and becoming a substitute for everything that Jobs was to Apple. There will be at least some time of uncertainty as to who could become the face of a company that has been identified with Jobs’ face, vocabulary and charisma. Cook may be able to treasure Jobs’ idea of what Apple is at its core together with what it can be, but he will have to evolve Apple from how it exists today as well as the way it is perceived on the outside. He can only achieve this goal by becoming the face of a new Apple – an Apple which will need a strong person to continue Jobs’ legacy. Cook will have to be that person, yet he must remain different from Jobs so he can avoid a permanent comparison to the Apple co-founder.
I have not been at an Apple executive meeting, nor have I chatted with Cook over a cup of coffee. However, I do believe that he will remain in close contact with Jobs, and both may agree on a strategy that there must be a new Apple that can be guided and represented by Cook without the need for Jobs to be present. As strange as it sounds, this may be the best way for Jobs to preserve his creation. A new Apple does not mean that it is changing its direction; it refers to an Apple that is creating new trends, taking advantage of prior trends and delivering stunning products. Cook’s introduction as CEO may seem surprising at this point in time, but it could be a planned event. Cook could be launched with the new iPhone 5 and a rumored completely new product by the end of the year. Jobs also hands over control during a recession, which gives Cook an opportunity to shine when the economy improves. However, Cook will need a killer product that he owns to have a successful start and create a foundation for his own legacy.
The Celebrity Trap
What Cook needs to avoid is making the same mistake that Ballmer made. Ballmer has an incredibly bright mind and is most certainly among the top five representatives who any company in this country could want. However, Ballmer has no legacy.
Ballmer has remained the eternal apprentice of Gates in public perception, but he has never managed to step out of Gates’ shadow since he took over Microsoft as CEO in 2000 and since Gates left Microsoft’s daily business in 2008. Microsoft is still defined by products that were created under Gates; and those that are emerging, such as the Xbox 360, are not perceived to be owned by Ballmer. While I have the utmost respect for Ballmer and his ability to earn two dollars when Microsoft’s competitors can earn only one, he is not the face of Microsoft as Gates was and is simply being seen as a business manager. He is not the corporate celebrity Gates was and not a celebrity that Microsoft could use so desperately today.
Ballmer’s dilemma is that he is vulnerable from an investor’s point of view and the only person standing between him and angry shareholders is Gates. I often wonder why Ballmer continues under the mounting attacks of analysts and does not step down. He has done more for Microsoft than any other Microsoft employee, possibly more than Gates himself, as he controlled the company’s business moves. There should be a time when you tell yourself that enough is enough, and there is no need to listen to that criticism anymore. The only reason why Ballmer remains CEO may be his passion for the company he built with Gates. No one has to feel sorry for Ballmer, but he has become the poster board example that hard work and limitless passion are not enough to replace an icon such as Bill Gates.
So, could Cook also fall into the celebrity trap as well? Of course he could. The trap is already set every inch of the way Cook will have to walk. A failed product will be blamed on him. He will be made responsible for slower growth in revenue and profit, and he will have to be prepared for potshots that will compare him to the great Steve Jobs when that happens. It will be difficult for Cook to create the perception that he is not Jobs’ apprentice and not just an accidental person who happens to have the task of continuing something that someone else created. When Apple’s growth stalls, and it most certainly will at some point, Cook could easily share the same fate with Ballmer.
If you look at the job from this perspective, Tim Cook's future is filled with opportunity just as much as it is a setup for failure.