Let me be the first to say that Tim Cook has done a superb job at Apple. Since taking the helm in August 2011, Apple’s market value has more than doubled (for a brief period above $1 trillion) as it has done a tremendous job at trading ravenous customers up to higher priced versions of its devices and services.
Operations has taken the front seat, and the focus on it will continue with the recent elevation of Jeff Williams, COO and now Chief Design Officer (with the departure of Apple’s iconic Jony Ive last month). This marks Williams unequivocally as the CEO heir apparent.
Insiders at Apple told Bloomberg Businessweek that Williams has been being groomed for the job for a while and is cut from the same mold as Cook, with many admirable core qualities, like operational efficiency, an even temper, modesty in droves (and a soft-spoken nature to boot), discipline, and high expectations. All wonderful qualities to have at the top for any company.
But is it what this company most needs?
An Apple insider told Bloomberg Businessweek that Jeff is “95 percent operations, five percent product. Apple has become an operations company.”
Here’s why another keen operator at the top may spell trouble for Apple.
After a remarkably strong sales run, unit sales of the iPhone (which makes up two-thirds of Apple’s revenue) has stalled the last several years while the company hasn’t cracked the code in fast-growing, device/services hungry China and India.
The last designer with Jobs level prowess may have just left the company last month in Ive, with a former Apple senior executive saying that the next highest profile designers, design team leads Evans Hankey and Alan Dye, are a “step down from Ive in terms of design prowess.”
And not to say that Williams is a slouch in the design department, having co-created the Apple Watch and being known for the ability to understand what designers underneath him are trying to do and supporting them (versus constantly overruling them).
But it’s widely viewed that design is not Williams core strength–he’s an operator. This worries me as an Apple aficionado and a fan of a company that has defined itself by its must-have, genre defining (maybe even generation defining) design behind products that move the world, and yes, dent the universe.
“95 percent operations, 5 percent product.”
Now, you can say that the CEO doesn’t have to be the design visionary, he just has to know how to work with and get the best out of a talented design bench (a reported skill of Williams). But it’s unclear that Apple has a design bench to the extent that defined the Steve Jobs era.
The opposite seems to make more sense, grooming a true visionary CEO, a design-minded behemoth who can serve and fuel the company’s DNA while being influenced (by a talented COO) to channel that vision into operation friendly output. A checks and balance on products that shift the balance and fabric of how we live our lives.
Am I asking too much of the iconic Apple? Can the level of impact it has had on us be repeated for any sustainable period anymore? Like their operational minded CEO/future CEO, I’m demanding, with immodest expectations, I suppose.
I love market valuation increases, operational efficiencies, and higher margins as much as the next business leader. But I’d feel more excited about and mentally invested in the future (not just the future of Apple) if the next CEO were more like Steve Jobs than Tim Cook.
Apple has become a symbol of what’s possible in the future, how human beings might evolve. Tech with a human touch, a touch of the Jetson’s, a touch of hope and dreams for us all. A proxy for progress.
I’d be ecstatic if I’m off base in my nagging concern. I’m putting Apple on watch, hoping so.