Grading Tim Cook

It's not easy describing Tim Cook's role within Apple. Yes, he is CEO serving at the discretion of Apple's board of directors. However, there is much more than this going on behind the scenes and Cook's formal title. Apple isn't run like an average company and shouldn't be judged as one. This impacts how we should grade Tim Cook's performance as Apple CEO. 

A double standard is being used to judge Tim Cook. No other tech CEO is being graded on the same scale as Cook. He is being penalized for not entering questionable product categories. In addition, the new products that Apple has decided to sell are looked at through an iPhone lens. Apple has the best-selling smartwatch in history, with sales approaching 25M units in less than two years, and yet the product is looked at by some observers with a yawn. This type of criticism is just not found when it comes to judging Cook's peers. In fact, some of Apple's largest competitors have voting structures in place that make judging CEO performance a mere formality as boards don't have enough power to do much of anything. 

In an effort to grade Tim Cook fairly, one soon discovers that this is no easy task.  Apple has a unique corporate culture and organizational structure, and Cook is not your typical tech CEO. 

Tim Cook, COO

Tim Cook joined Apple in March 1998 as Chief Operating Officer. His job was to save Apple, literally. Cook quickly went to work drawing down excess Mac inventory in addition to laying the groundwork for Apple's outsourcing strategy. When it came time to build the iPod, it was Cook who built the supply chain and positioned Foxconn as an Apple assembler. When it came time to build the iPhone, it was Cook who made sure all the trains were running on time in terms of procurement and production. When it came to time introduce the iPhone to new customers around the world, it was Cook who negotiated with mobile carriers to begin selling the iPhone. 

By the end of Cook's time as Apple COO, a title he held for 13 years, Cook had taken on a role much more similar to that of a traditional CEO. In a little known fact, during the last few years of the Steve Jobs era, it was Cook (and Apple SVP Marketing Phil Schiller) who were tasked with coming up with Apple's corporate strategy. This allowed Steve Jobs to spend time with Jony Ive and focus on the product. Said another way, Tim Cook was the one that allowed Steve to be Steve. 

When it came time to relinquish his CEO title, Steve selected Cook as his successor. While the move was met with controversy outside Apple, the selection signaled that Steve didn't look at the CEO position as something that needed to be held by a product person. Much of that belief likely resulted from the fact that Cook had been handling many of the traditional CEO duties himself as COO for years. 

Tim Cook, CEO

How has Tim Cook been doing over the past six years?

In trying to find an answer to this question, much more information is needed regarding Cook's actual role within Apple. Is he single-handily guiding Apple forward or has Cook come to depend on a smaller, inner circle within Apple's SVP ranks? The answer plays a role in determining Cook's contributions to Apple. Meanwhile, how much of Apple's product strategy is actually determined by Cook rather than Jony Ive? This seems like critical information to have when judging Cook's performance. 

The Apple Watch serves as a great example of how power within Apple is much more decentralized than many assume. Apple Watch is Jony's baby. As told in the The New Yorker profile of Jony Ive published two years ago, Jony met some resistance among Apple executives regarding the Apple Watch's main tenets involving fashion and luxury. Apple would become a very different company selling a device like Apple Watch. After some convincing, Jony was able to alleviate most concerns, and Apple marched towards Apple Watch. When it came time to manage the Apple Watch team, Apple COO Jeff Williams was eventually put in charge. This doesn't exactly jump out as an obvious decision given that Jeff Williams is a supply chain expert.

With this information in hand, who should we look to as being responsible for Apple Watch's performance? The people in charge of the product's design and user experience (Jony Ive, Marc Newson, and the rest of Apple's Industrial Design group)? Those in charge of Apple Watch development (Jeff Williams)? Tim Cook as Apple CEO? 

One can repeat this exercise with every major Apple product and initiative. Should Tim Cook be judged by Apple's success or failure in music and video streaming even though that is clearly Eddy Cue's domain? 

Cook's Inner Circle

Tim Cook is leading a different type of Apple than that which existed under Steve. Things are done differently, down to how decisions are made and then communicated throughout Apple. This leads to a theory that may seem controversial today but is becoming increasingly clear as time goes on. It is impossible to grade Tim Cook as CEO without grading Cook's inner circle. 

While Cook has at least seventeen VPs and SVPs reporting directly to him, a very high number, there is evidence that many of the key decisions regarding Apple's strategy are determined by a much smaller group of SVPs.  This team likely includes Eddy Cue, Phil Schiller, and Jeff Williams. The three have been at Apple since the 1990s, experiencing Apple at its best and also worst. Eddy Cue joined Apple in 1989. 

Instead of grading Cook by himself, on his own contributions, it makes more sense to grade this inner circle with Cook as its leader. The primary reason is that it is difficult to differentiate where and how Apple strategy is decided within this group. Notice how some of the key product responsibilities have been doled out in recent years: 

  • Jeff Williams, COO: Oversees Apple Watch development and Apple's health initiatives. 
  • Eddy Cue, SVP Internet Software and Services: Controls Apple's expanding content strategy into music and video streaming although he is also in charge of Apple's overall services strategy. 
  • Phil Schiller, SVP Worldwide Marketing: Took on more responsibility with the App Store and developer relations, items that lack a direct relationship to product marketing. 

Apple's most important new product and initiative (Apple Watch and health) are run by a member of Cook's inner circle. In addition, the items that have caused the most pain and controversy for Apple in recent years (services and the App Store) are now run directly by people in Cook's inner circle. 

Outside board seat appointments provide another clue as to the power held by this inner circle.

  • Tim Cook sits on Nike's board. 
  • Eddy Cue sits on Ferrari's board
  • Phil Schiller recently joined Illumina's board.

It is not a coincidence that Apple's product road map includes plenty of wearables and fashion (Nike), transportation (Ferrari), and health (Illumnia). 

The removal of Scott Forstall as SVP of iOS back in 2012 takes on a new level of importance when discussing the topic of Tim Cook and his inner circle. It has been reported that Forstall did not get along with other Apple executives. While we have never officially heard Forstall's side of the story, which is odd, Cook's desire for a powerful inner circle does support the theory that Forstall was removed in order to position this tight-knit group of Apple SVPs as a type of brain trust. Forstall was clear in his ambitions to one day be CEO. Cue, Schiller, and Williams don't hold similar ambitions. Instead, ideas are bounced off each other and disagreements are hashed out within this group before being funneled to the rest of the company. Forstall threatened to throw off this dynamic and risk having Cook's leadership structure collapse. 

There is one missing piece pertaining to Cook's inner circle. Who is in charge of the most important thing at Apple, the product? This is where Jony and the Apple Industrial Design group enter the equation. Cook and his inner circle have given much more power to Jony and the Apple Industrial Design group in recent years. The biggest benefactor in terms of grabbing power from Forstall's departure was Jony

Jony has taken on the role of Apple's product visionary while Tim Cook's inner circle has taken on the role of running Apple. In attempt to visualize this leadership structure, the following diagram depicts Apple's leadership structure. 

Tim Cook and his inner circle look after Apple's day-to-day operations, while the Industrial Design group look after Apple's product strategy. Meanwhile, Jony Ive as Chief Design Officer is left to do what he wants. If that role sounds familiar, it is the exact role formerly held by Steve Jobs. 

Evaluating Cook and His Inner Circle

With this new framework regarding Tim Cook's inner circle in mind, let's grade their performance:

Product Strategy. While companies like to think they have a lead against Apple when it comes to the next "big thing," it's difficult to find major fault with Apple's overall product strategy. We have been in the iPhone era for the past six years and unsurprisingly, the iPhone has performed well. Apple's primary new product initiative, Apple Watch, is starting to gain momentum. Apple is on track to sell more than 10M Apple Watches in 2017. This would position Apple very close to taking the title of best-selling wearables brand away from Fitbit. Meanwhile, AirPods will likely end up outselling Apple Watch. Blemishes when its comes to Apple's product strategy include sporadic Mac and iPad updates, seemingly slow progress with Siri, questionable user interface choices with new products like Apple Watch and Apple Music, and early mishaps with Apple Maps. 

Product Pipeline/R&D. The competitive landscape in tech is changing with the battleground centering around the body, automobile, and home. Apple is showing significant investment and interest with wearables (body) and transportation. Apple has been funneling cash into R&D at an alarming rate. In addition, Apple's M&A activity points to continued elevated awareness of Apple's limitations and weaknesses.

Operations. Ironically, one of Apple's sore spots in recent years has been Tim Cook's long-standing area of expertise. Apple has been experiencing increasingly noticeable supply chain troubles. It is becoming rare for Apple to have much, if any, supply available on product launches. While one assumes much of this is due to Apple simply meeting greater demand at launch, that is unable to explain everything. For much smaller product launches, such as that of Apple Watch, Apple has also faced severe supply issues. It has been three months since Apple Watch went on sale, and there is still a three-week wait to buy Apple Watch Series 2. Meanwhile, specialty items like Apple Pencil are pretty much out of stock for months at launch. Is this a byproduct of Apple having troubling maintaining such a large supply chain? Is it becoming harder to source components? Is Jeff Williams being stretched too thin? With all of that said, it's important to not grade Apple on a curve. The company is shipping more than 290M devices per year - not exactly a small feat.  

Marketing/Storytelling. Apple has had its fair share of lows over the past six years when it comes to product marketing, both with ads and explaining new products. Cook and the inner circle have been making changes to Apple's ad campaigns, including beefing up Apple's internal teams. The recent hire of Tor Myhren as VP Marketing Communications contains much promise, and early indications do show an improvement in Apple ads. However, Apple is still struggling when it comes to telling a product's story. While Jony appears to be the one able to tell that story, the lack of desire on his part to participate in keynotes leaves this story to be told either through keynote videos or subsequent press interviews. It probably is worth pointing out that this is one area on which Steve spent quite a bit of time and attention. Apple appears to be still trying to figure out how to fill his shoes in this regard. 

Culture. It's clear that Apple has changed under Cook. Power has moved to new people, which implies others have lost power. Apple is not the same little startup that it was during the iPod days. There is evidence that Cook and team are comfortable with giving Richard Howarth and the Apple Industrial Design group quite a bit of power. This implies other groups have likely lost some influence with Cook and his inner circle. The fact that Project Titan is completely separated from Apple suggests management is aware of some changes in how things are done within Apple. Titan needs more of a start-up mentality, something that may be more difficult to find within Apple itself. However, at the end of the day, the most important aspect of Apple's culture is putting the product above everything else. There is no clear evidence to suggest this ideal has disappeared or is any less important to Cook and team. 

Public Face. Cook has displayed the motivation and fortitude to represent Apple to the outside world. If judging Cook strictly on his own performance, this would likely represent his strength, which is surprising given his operations and numbers background. Cook recognizes that Apple holds quite a bit of power as the most valuable company in the world and truly believes that Apple and its broader mission should follow the concept of leaving the world in a better place. 

Financials. If we were grading Apple strictly by financial performance, Cook and his inner circle would get a passing grade. Apple's revenue is up 99% to $216B since 2011. Operating margins have remained steady. More than $185 billion of excess cash has been returned to shareholders through dividends and share repurchases. Apple shares are less than 10% off from their all-time highs. With all of that said, there are blemishes. It would be difficult for Cook and team to earn an "A" if going strictly by Apple financials. Apple hit a rough patch in 2016. Apple reported its first annual decline in revenue in 15 years. Management missed its revenue and operating income performance targets for 2016. In addition, AAPL shares have essentially been tracking the broader indices over the past two years. Nevertheless, it's been rare to see a public board penalize a CEO for essentially performing in-line with the overall market. 

In attempt to add a bit of relative context to this subjective grading: 

  • Product Strategy: A- 
  • Product Pipeline/R&D: A 
  • Operations: B- 
  • Marketing/Storytelling: C+ 
  • Culture: B+ 
  • Public Face: A+ 
  • Financials: B 

Obviously, there is room for improvement. The three weak points include: marketing/storytelling, supply issues, and finding a sustainable Wall Street narrative. While some people may penalize Cook and his inner circle for their treatment of the Mac, it would be tough to hit them over the lack of a Mac strategy driven by the Industrial Design group. (There is one although some may disagree with it). In addition, many have been quick to hit Cook for Apple being "behind" its peers when it comes to core technologies. There is not only quite a bit of subjectivity found in such a claim, but also evidence that suggests capability should not be interchanged with functionality and usefulness. 

The Apple ecosystem now includes more than 1.1 billion devices and approximately 800 million users. The iPhone, iPad, and Mac installed bases have seen significant growth over the past six years. If Apple were a sandcastle, Cook has overseen quite the massive construction phase. While credit for this achievement should indeed flow to Cook and his inner circle (the four were instrumental with iPhone, iPad, and Mac), there is a much more straightforward way to judge Cook as Apple's CEO. Is the product still the most important thing at Apple? It's not by accident that the only way to answer that question is to bring Jony and the Apple Industrial Design group into the question. This leads us to the most effective way to judge Cook and his inner circle. Is Apple still a design studio with a large technology company attached to the side? In response to that question, Cook and his inner circle are doing what needs to be done in order to maintain Apple's relevancy. 

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