The late Steve Jobs has proved a tough act to follow for current CEO Tim Cook. Pete Myers was a “6,6” shooting guard who was drafted in 1986 by the Chicago Bulls in the sixth round, with the 120th overall pick. He had an unspectacular career that included long stretches outside the NBA.
Myers, who was regarded as a better than average defender, is best known as the player who replaced Michael Jordan the first time Jordan retired from basketball, in 1994. In 1995, Myers was part of a Bulls squad that surprised everyone by winning 55 games, just two fewer than the year prior, when the Bulls beat the Phoenix Suns to win the NBA championship, and Jordan was named MVP.
Normally, organizations who have to replace great leaders don’t see the transition go this smoothly. Lyndon Johnson, who famously took the oath of office aboard Air Force One after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, is remembered as a polarizing figure who escalated the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, exposing a cultural rift in the nation.
Further back in history, Philip III Arrhidaeus, who succeeded Alexander the Great, was generally regarded as a figurehead, and was executed, in 317 BC. Last year, Steve Ballmer, who replaced Bill Gates as Microsoft boss, was named “Worst CEO” by Forbes.
Following a legend in most fields of endeavor is a momentous task. When the man you are replacing is iconic and the field is consumer technology, it becomes absolutely herculean.
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When Tim Cook replaced Steve Jobs a few months before the latter’s death, in October, 2011, he was generally regarded as a great operator, and was revered as the man who increased Apple’s margins by removing inefficiencies in its supply chain. Studious, humble, and predictable, one of Cook’s first tasks as CEO was a simple change in culture that some think may have sowed the seeds of Apple’s current malaise. Cook, says Seton Hall marketing professor Daniel M. Ladik, began “… weeding out people with disagreeable personalities—people Jobs tolerated and even held close. Cook wants a culture of harmony. All of the people Cook has hired and promoted up the food chain are agreeable team players.
Throughout Apple’s recent slide, Cook has remained sensible and patient. When many said the iPad mini would cannibalize sales of the iPad, Cook quietly explained why this was not really a problem. His handling of Apple’s outsourcing problems was both delicate and decisive, resulting in Apple bringing back the manufacture of one line of Macs to the U.S. He has made Apple easier to do business with, because they are “a little less arrogant than they used to be”, says one telco boss.
By all accounts, Apple is a more harmonious place to work than it was under Jobs. So why have shares of Apple fallen by more than 35% from their 2012 peak?
What the time since Tim Cook took the reigns at Apple has revealed is just how much Steve Jobs skill set was different and how much it is necessary to Apple’s culture. What Apple is missing, both inside and outside the company, is Steve Jobs’s “reality distortion field.”
The reality distortion field is a term that was coined by Apple’s current Software Technology VP Guy “Bud” Tribble in the early 1980’s. It describe Jobs’ ability to convince others that his vision was the best though charm, charisma and, sometimes, hyperbole. This talent pulled disparate elements of the company together, and was like a Jedi mind trick when used on the media.
This was best in evidence when during Apple’s iPhone antenna issues in 2010. It was revealed that by holding the iPhone by the lower left hand corner its wireless signal strength degraded . Jobs response? Hold the phone differently. Or better yet, buy one of our custom cases, for $30. The issue essentially faded into the background.
How would Tim Cook have handled the problem? Perhaps the same way he did the Apple Maps debacle, by firing long time employee Scott Forstall, who has been described as mini-Steve Jobs.
Steve Jobs leadership style works better than Tim Cook’s because, says NYU Media Research Lab professor Ken Perlin, Apple isn’t really a technology company.
“It’s very important not to mistake Steve Jobs for someone who was important because of technological design,” Perlin explained to Live Science in 2011. “Apple is not a technology company. That’s not what they’re selling you. That’s why I think Jobs was a towering genius of his time, but not for the reasons people generally think. Think of all the people who are going to go out and buy the new Kindle for $199 because they aspire to an iPad. That competitor wouldn’t exist without Jobs. Apple changes everything around them by challenging them and raising the bar.”
Jobs was more DJ than songwriter. More Deadmaus than Dylan. He took elements of the old, remixed them, and made them seem new, even though they weren’t. He did this over and over again. Tech veteran Jean-Louis Gassée, general partner at Palo Alto-based Allegis Capital describes the launch of the iPad, in an article called “Apple Never Invented Anything.”
“For thirty years, the industry had tried to create a tablet, and it had tried too hard. The devices kept clotting, one after the other. Alan Kay’s Dynabook, Go, Eo, GridPad, various Microsoft-powered Tablet PCs, even Apple’s Newton in the early nineties….they didn’t congeal, nothing took. Then, in January 2010, Chef Jobs walks on stage with the iPad and it all becomes obvious, easy. Three decades of failures are forgotten.”
Another key thing Steve Jobs knew was that Apple has as much in common with luxury brands such as Prada, Rolex and LuluLemon than it does with technology companies like Intel or Google. Despite making nearly four dollars profit from each person on earth in fiscal 2011, Jobs managed to position Apple as an aspirational brand. But Apple’s brand value is now slipping.
Under Jobs Apple was the “The computer for the rest of us”. It gave you “The Power to Be Your Best”, and encouraged you to “Think Different”.
Today? Apple is a company with a patent on a rectangle.