Jun 24, 2009

Wanted: One Chief Executive Asshole

Dan Lyons:

Cook is a great manager, a whiz when it comes to managing supply chains and keeping the trains running on time. He is vital to Apple. Jobs cannot do what he does. But neither can Cook do what Jobs does. The fact is, Apple needs both of them. Forgive me for the analogy I am about to make — but if you’ve seen the latest Star Trek movie, then you might understand how Cook and Jobs work together. Cook is Spock: low-key, cerebral, methodical. He’s the Apollonian counterpart to Kirk, the Dionysian hothead. Kirk is impulsive — but nobody would deny that he, not Spock, should be captain of the ship.

(via Daring Fireball)

No advice for the heir to the throne from me: if anything, my suggestions for products are things not to do. I’m a technophile, a nerd: but unlike my fellow geeks, I am sufficiently self-aware of my detachment from mainstream society to realize that anything I do would appeal to a very narrow subset of the population. (That’s a pretty good razor right there: a nerd realizes he is out-of-touch with reality; a geek doesn’t.)

No, I want to look at the article itself.

Lyons pretty much has said what others were scared to admit. What I found odd about his article was that he danced around his thesis without explicitly stating it: Apple is doomed without Jobs at the helm. Granted, he has always been a Cassandra as far as Apple is concerned, but this time he has a valid point. I can think of only four possible scenarios that can happen after Steve Jobs leaves the CEO seat: two good, one iffy, and one disastrous.

  1. Apple hires from within. This is the most plausible: Tim Cook is practically CEO right now in everything but name. It would be the least disruptive choice.

    Unfortunately, as Lyons pointed out, Tim Cook is not a visionary. He is, however, the one that the board of directors and institutional stockholders find most comfortable: soft-spoken, hard-working, and rational. That’s the problem with the current suite of CxOs at Apple: they have reached their position by compromise and concession.

    Let’s face it: Jobs wouldn’t even be CEO if he hadn’t founded the company. People like him end up bitter and alone at the bottom of the pile — I speak from experience. When you are that arrogant, the only way you get to the top is to start there.

    Prognosis: stasis or slow decline.

  2. Apple hires from without. This could happen even if Tim Cook takes the CEO position: one disastrous quarter and the institutional investors start panicking.

    This would kill off Apple’s lead the fastest. There are no executives out there with the kind of artistic vision the position requires (sorry, Ellison — apes do read philosophy, they just don’t understand it). Any outsider taking the position would inevitably try to change the company’s style. Any change to the working environment would lead to a mass exodus of talent.

    Prognosis: a quick trip back to the quagmire of the ’90s.

  3. Jobs anoints a successor, and it is a creative outsider. This would be the most radical action possible: the one that would cause a panic amongst the prosaic industrial investors, mass defections from the current executive stable, and the one that would be the most likely to keep the company at the forefront of the industry.

    The problem is that there really aren’t any creative outsiders out there. Anyone who is notable and talented is stuck to the surface of Bubble 2.0 and shows no indication of leaving.

    Prognosis: stormy weather ahead, but ultimately a continuation of Apple’s status as a vanguard of consumer technology.

  4. The CEO position is filled via a “reverse takeover” like what happened with NeXT. This could happen if Apple starts to slip and Cook decides that the only way to regain mindshare is to snap up a hot young company. The problem is that the current collection of hot young companies are led by people with less fiscal sense than a teenager with her father’s stolen credit card at the shopping mall during a fashion blowout. Say what you want, but Jobs has never entered a market without having an idea of how to make a business out of it.

    Of course, this could lead to another “dynamic duo” like the relationship of Jobs and Cook as described by Lyons. But people are funny creatures: when they get kicked down the corporate totem pole, they start looking for other opportunities. Cook (or someone like him) would have to retain the CEO title but be boss in name only.

    Prognosis: good, but only if the reverse takeover results in an executive cadre that supports its leader fanatically.

What Lyons is trying to say is that Apple needs to continue its success post-Jobs with another Steve Jobs. Best of luck with that. The problem with trying to find another is that the search requires the kind of radical thinking that only Jobs seems to have.

But hey, you have my résumé. Feel free to call.