Are you an Employer?

SPARK OF THE CORPORATE

Without the possibility of failure there is no possibility of success....

Being the man chosen, ostensibly, to replace the Chosen-One, leading a technology & design behemoth, and being the highest paid CEO in the world – are things that are bound to make one envious of the person about whom these are being said. But, I would be the last one to even contemplate such a profile for myself if I had so much as an ink-ling of the perils (yes, they are) that lie scattered along the path over-looked by a stealthy cover of expectations and hope. You‘d be curious to know why; therefore, before going into the Tim Cook saga, it might be well worth to recount a bit of background to this write-up.

Just a shade over a year into his role as full-time CEO of Apple and Cook is already faced with the prospect of having to deal with questions, day-in and day-out, regarding his capacity to successfully lead Apple in the post-Jobs era. The contention of all those questions revolves around two points: will he be able to not only achieve the kind of success his predecessor and mentor (in a way), Steve Jobs, did but also carry forward the great legacy that Jobs created around Apple by heralding a re-invention of the company, the likes of which there are very few precedents in the history of the modern business world. Of course, it is unfair -unjust even- to draw comparisons between the two. Simply because the situations, and the events and happenings leading upto those situations, in which Jobs led Apple to become the most valued company in the world by some measure (at one point in time not very long ago), and those for Cook are totally different, if not unfamiliar. One can aver that it will be all the more difficult to continue to bring in, and perhaps top, the success Apple had under Steve Jobs, than if Cook had inherited the leadership of a company which was, at best, wandering in the midst of nowhere –which Apple was when Jobs came back to take control of matters at the company in the 1997.

In retrospect, more significantly, one can further say that it was Apple’s loss of initiative -despite it having the innovator’s advantage- that rendered the failure of the CEO (if it had happened) quite inconsequential. So in that sense, Steve Jobs had it easy: he would give his best shot at it – draw upon Apple’s core competencies and his own visionary self (which has so inadvertently created an aura that might outlast his success at Apple, as indeed Apple’s success itself!) to see if he can effect a turn-around. If he did, great (which he did and how!); else, it would have gone down as just another attempt biting the dust, of which very few would have talked about. That was about the only possible inference if Jobs hadn’t succeeded. Remember, nothing succeeds -and is talked about- like success.

But for Cook though, it was -when he assumed office as full-time CEO, is today -when some of the offerings have not been able to evoke the kind of response the earlier ones did (barring from die-hard Apple loyalists) and will remain to be, a very different proposition altogether to just continue what Jobs had created, notwithstanding the fact that he was also instrumental in a lot of the things that Apple was able to achieve with Jobs at the helm. That means Tim Cook has a great deal more at stake than Jobs did at any point in time as chief of Apple. Admittedly, Jobs was one of a kind, and seemingly, irreplaceable even. However, that, by no means, should take away anything from Cook who has made a definite impact on the performance of the company in all the senior management roles he was asked to assume -in areas that Jobs did not pay attention to, much less care about. And, he has done well. But, of late Apple has run into headwinds due to umpteen players, big ones at that, coming into the field which was, until not very recently, the bastion of Apple. While it will take a very long time for the competition to shatter the Apple-mania, indications are that the new entrants have, slowly but surely, started to make a dent into Apple’s share of the pie. That means Cook & team have their task cut out, and whether or not they will rise up to the challenge, see off the threats and, importantly, continue to lead the technology and design revolution it pioneered in the last decade -as well as succeed, is a matter that is best left for time to decide.

Early Years

Cook was born (1st November, 1960) and brought up in Robertsdale, near Mobile, Alabama. His father was a shipyard worker, while his mother was a homemaker. So, the quality of working one’s way up was well and truly imbued in young Tim. Cook had his schooling from the Robertsdale High School. He earned a Bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from Auburn University in 1982 and his M.B.A. from Duke University's Fuqua School of Business (in 1988) while he was still employed with IBM, his first employer, where a worked for almost 12 years. His performance and dedication at IBM are still reminisced with a sense of awe by some who have known him since those days. He was a workaholic then, is a workaholic now – there are no two views about it.

He moved on from IBM in 1994 to join Intelligent Electronics where he worked in the computer-reseller division, of which he eventually became the COO. When the division was sold to Ingram Micro in 1997, he moved on to work at Compaq for a short stint of six months.

The Spark

Just six or seven months into his stint with Compaq, around 1998, he had a chance meeting with Steve Jobs. Some say that Jobs had scouted for Cook and, that he himself sought the meeting in order to clinch Cook for Apple. Regardless of its origin or the initiator, the meeting proved to be an eye opener for Cook. In his own words he says, he was compelled by Jobs’ charisma, brilliance, and dynamism, and was bought into his vision for Apple’s future as also the strategy he laid out i.e. moving full-on into consumer electronics when other computer companies were racing toward the enterprise segment, which drew Cook towards Apple despite the fact that it was in a very precarious position at the time.

But, more than the vision, it was perhaps Jobs’ contention that when you are following a herd, you are destined to be average, at best, which stood out. And, Cook wasn’t one to accept that. Thus, it was an intuition resulting from his interaction with Steve Jobs that made Cook take the decision of joining Apple, even though many well-wishers had advised him against taking such a step, which according to them was nothing short of a career-limiting move.

He joined Apple as Senior Vice President for Worldwide Operations. He was entrusted with the job of solving the problems relating to its manufacturing and supply-chain apparatus. This is where Cook really made the best of opportunities presented to him by Jobs, to leave his mark on the history of the company. He pulled Apple out of manufacturing by closing factories and warehouses around the world. This helped the company reduce inventory levels and streamline its supply chain to improve its efficiency and, dramatically increase its margins. These initiatives proved to be the key factors in Apple’s continued success of being able to unveil next-generation products by keeping them secret until they were ready for distribution to retail following demand forecasting phase, and then the execution against that forecast.

This and many other initiatives of Cook had obviously gained enough confidence of the board as well as Jobs himself, who knew too well about the capabilities of the man, to be entrusted with the stand-in CEO role when Jobs had to go on extended leave owing to health problems. His leadership qualities were manifest, as we have seen, in the clean-up job of the back-end apparatus, leading the sales force, customer support, and the Macintosh division from 2004 and in 2007 becoming Apple’s COO. Cook was asked to fill-in for Jobs not once or twice but thrice during a period of seven years, and he took to it like a duck to water; neither mindful nor worried of the implications of assuming such mantle. He was first asked to take the responsibility in 2004, then again in 2009, when Cook was able to infuse a sense of reassurance for nervous investors by keeping on track the development of products like the iPhone 4 and the iPad. He was also chiefly responsible for the increased Macintosh computer sales which added to the improved financial performance of Apple during the economic downturn that had set-in in 2008, and one last time as the interim CEO in January 2010. Steve Jobs shoes are just too big to fill for anybody, regardless of whether it is on a temporary basis or a long-term one. But Cook did it with such enthusiasm and clarity of purpose -reflected in everything Apple in recent times- that every time Jobs came back to resume work as the top man or, for that matter, went back to tend to his illness and recuperate, he didn’t to have worry if something has gone, or was going to be, amiss.

Such was his performance that the Apple board rewarded Cook with a $5 million bonus and stock valued at $53 million in 2010.

The Journey Thereafter

Sensing the inevitable, to fill the void that would be created with Jobs relinquishing the top post for good, owing to the frailty of his health, Apple’s board did not need to look any farther than Cook. He was their tried and trusted lieutenant, who had proved to be just the ideal substitute, if not replacement, for Jobs during his (Cook’s) three brief stints as stand-in CEO earlier. So, without having to deliberate much, they appointed Cook as the full-time CEO of Apple in August 2011. This would have been truly satisfying as well as quite reassuring for Jobs, since Cook was his discovery: it was his ingenuity and vision that had won over Cook for Apple.

One can say that Cook was reasonably well-groomed to take up the responsibility. However, because he is not Jobs, and also because despite him having worked under Jobs’ shadow for most of his career at Apple, Tim Cook has a mind of his own, which thinks quite differently than Jobs when it comes to some very crucial matters relating to the company.

For instance, while Jobs was known to have abhorred imitators, and would look to stamp out the so-called copycats, Cook adopts a very different route. Rather than spending resources on lawsuits, he resorted to negotiations and out-of-court settlements wherever possible. Another aspect that sets him apart from Jobs is his willingness to share the success of the company with its share-holders, which was manifest in the Apple announcement that said it would return some of its $100 billion cash-pile to shareholders in the form of dividends and stock buy-backs. Jobs had always preferred to hold onto the money for possible acquisitions or other investments, and thus had long resisted calls to issue dividends and buy back shares.

Another difference in the view-points of Cook and Jobs and, hence, the shift in handling matters, is reflected in their approach toward philanthropy. While Jobs was a staunch believer in not mixing business with charity, Cook has initiated a program whereby the company matches employees' charitable contributions, an approach that is likely to spread wealth more efficiently than some other conventional method.

Other than these minor shifts, Cook has preserved the basic fiber of Apple that is so Jobs to the core. As always, he has continued to invest in research and innovation. However, inspite of everything, things have not gone too well for Apple, and Cook, lately. A poorly executed rollout of its new Maps app, and a tepid reception for both the iPhone 5 and iOS6, has left even the most ardent Apple fans wondering if its magic has started to wane a bit post-Jobs.

Cook though, on his part, did what a true leader should do under such circumstances. He tendered a formal apology for the Maps goof-up, and also effected the ousting of the person responsible for it, who apart from being so undesirable to work with, was unapologetic for the two duds he delivered – Maps and iOS6. Some seem to argue that this wasn’t totally unexpected after Jobs, as his departure would rob Apple of the specialty it reveled in, consequently, leading it to becoming one of the also-rans of the industry. That inference seems a touch unfair. Look at it this way: all of the accomplishments of Apple under Jobs were discoveries – marvels of technology and design- for which there was virtually no competition at the time. Now, look at what Apple under Cook had to contend with, vis-à-vis the three latest offerings that have tanked. For the Maps app, it is pitted against none other than Google and half-a-dozen others, plus the fact that Samsung, Google, and a host of other major players have had a more than reasonable performance in the smart-phones and mobile computing market. While the offerings in themselves may not have set the world on fire with their features, it would be naïve to say that post-Jobs Apple has lost its magic. After all, what did Jobs do? To be sure, he was a visionary, which allowed him to appreciate the quality and the potential of the various innovations that team-Apple put forth. In the final analysis, we can safely say he was the enabler to all these innovations. Barring one approach of Jobs wherein he supervised everything of a new offering – from features down to the look and feel, Cook has also been performing his duty as the enabler of many initiatives. If anything, he is faced with many challenges now than what Jobs did at any point in time. And he has evolved his own way of addressing those challenges. In fact, Apple's revenue grew 66% to $108.2 billion last year (i.e. coinciding with the period since he took over as stand-in CEO in January 2011 through to his assumption of office as full-time CEO in August 2011), while earnings grew 85% to $26 billion.

Obviously, Cook’s performance prior to the mini-debacle of recent times has not been anything like the people out there in the market are making it out to be today. One must understand that Apple is going through a transitional phase post-Jobs and, expectedly, there is bound to be a little bit of uncertainty as well as anxiety amongst Apple loyalists, which may be reflected in the tepid responses to offerings as well as which might bring about an openness to like offerings from other players. In other words, it doesn’t necessarily reflect either Cook’s performance as the Apple chief, or the state of affairs at the company taking a turn for the worse, if at all. As such, we know from the numbers, that Cook has not done too badly. If that wasn’t the case, then how would one explain the fact that he was rewarded handsomely for taking over as CEO for the Steve Jobs, with a compensation package valued at nearly $380 million - with Apple directors themselves characterizing Cook's stock grant as a "promotion and retention" award. Half of the shares will vest in 2016, the rest in 2021 if Cook remains with Apple. This is the second time that the board has rewarded Cook. In the earlier instance he had gained $13 million — the value of shares awarded to him that vested in 2011.

More than the expectations of the Apple fans, it is the market dynamics and the roles of the various players in these times of changing computing and consumption patterns, that seem to be hurting Apple’s prospects. But, Cook and team have no reason to feel so disheartened about it all. As this was a trend back in Jobs’ time too; although, may be at a very basic and, perhaps, even insignificant level. If they dug out then, there is no reason why they can’t do it now. Of course, Jobs’ hand-holding is not there, but his aura and the people he chose to carry forward both, his as well as Apple’s legacy are still there. Cook is one of them and has proved his leadership on more than one occasion. All is not lost – it’s just a minor hiccup. It may well turn out to be a blessing in disguise for him. The adversity has presented Cook with the opportunity to charter a whole new course for Apple. He need not look anywhere else for inspiration. His ex-boss was faced with a similar situation, so perhaps he can draw from that experience and do what is required to wrest back the initiative from the me-too companies as well as regale Apple aficionados once again.

Quotes

@"At Apple, we take risks knowing that risk will sometimes result in failure, but without the possibility of failure there is no possibility of success."
@"You kind of want to manage it like you're in the dairy business. If it gets past its freshness date, you have a problem."
@"Apple doesn't do hobbies as a general rule. "
@"Anything can change, because the smartphone revolution is still in the early stages."
@"Apple has a culture of excellence that is, I think, so unique and so special. I'm not going to witness or permit the change of it. "
@"I think two people with strong points of view can appreciate each other even more."
@"I learned that focus is key. Not just in your running a company, but in your personal life as well."
@"In my view the tablet and the PC are different. You can do things with the tablet if you are not encumbered by the legacy of the PC. "
@"Price is rarely the most important thing. A cheap product might sell some units. Somebody gets it home and they feel great when they pay the money, but then they get it home and use it and the joy is gone."
@"The worst thing in the world that can happen to you if you're an engineer that has given his life to something is for someone to rip it off and put their name to it."
Hope viewers caught up the spark...
Feedback