If you've read Walter Isaacson's biography of Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) co-founder Steve Jobs, you know he had a profound respect for current CEO Tim Cook. You also know that he never considered Cook a "product person."
Whereas Jobs and Apple design chief Jony Ive were what Isaacson described as soulmates in the quest to create perfect products, Cook was a calming force who oversaw vast improvements in day-to-day operations. The yin to Jobs' yang, you might say.
But now Jobs is gone. Is Cook's genius for executing on a big vision enough to take Apple to the next level? We've been asking this question, nervously, for months. Now it appears our fears were unjustified.
Every bit as good as the original
According to new data from employee-satisfaction researcher Glassdoor, Cook has a 97% approval rating among the rank and file. Jobs' last rating -- during what some might say covers the apex of the Jobs era -- was 95%. Some of the employee comments cited in the Glassdoor report:
- "Great company with great leaders ... The products speak for themselves and the company," one software engineer wrote in October.
- "I think leadership is doing an amazing job," a former employee wrote in December. "We have the best management team anywhere."
- "Tim and the [executive team] are doing great job. Keep up the good work," another current employee wrote about a week ago.
Notice how every one of those comments was left long after Jobs resigned as CEO in August 2011. Taking that as an indictment of his management style is probably going too far. Yet as Isaacson makes clear in his book, there are sharp differences between the two Apple CEOs.
To Jobs, products were either great or awful. So were employees, partners, and competitors. Cook's polished demeanor stands in contrast, but workers are just as appreciative of his efforts. And not just Cook; the comments at Glassdoor reveal an appreciation for the entire executive team.
Employees are confident in Ive's ability to imagine great products. They're confident in Eddy Cue's ability to broker smart content deals for Apple's digital stores. They're confident in Scott Forstall's ability to shepherd iOS. And they believe Phil Schiller will preserve Apple's sharp-edged product marketing.
What to expect now
And if they're right? Then there's every reason to believe the company will perform as it has for much of the Jobs era. Specifically, I'm talking about the type of performance that could drive the stock to $1,650 a share by 2015, if you believe the most optimistic estimates.
On a product basis, this means we should expect Cook and his team to:
- Focus. According to Isaacson, Jobs could overcome most obstacles by focusing intently on outcomes and seeing the work through. For example, he spent years signing labels and artists to fill out the iTunes Store. Apple's lead in music downloads got so big that Microsoft's (Nasdaq: MSFT ) Zune failed even before it had a chance to thrive. Cook, Ive, and team come off just as determined to dominate the market for tablets.
- Attack. Apple's institutional memory includes long years in the wilderness, badly trailing competitors whose products Jobs thought to be inferior. Those days are long gone now, but thanks to Isaacson, we know the pain never fully went away. Jobs' competitive spirit burned bright as a result. Today's target: Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) and Android, which Jobs saw as a ripoff of the iPhone.
- Think broadly. Once Jobs had settled on an idea, he pursued it with gusto, but to read Isaacson's book is to learn that he also had a love of tooling around with new ideas, spending a part of each day with Ive batting around "dopey" schemes. Cook is too smart to get in the way of a creative process that's worked so well for so many years.
Don't get me wrong; I'm not suggesting that Cook is just a stand-in. All signs point to the contrary, and appropriately so. In his last days, Jobs told him not to ask "what would Steve do?" but to instead focus on what's right for Apple.
A rebel all his life, Jobs would hate to see his company regress into following some imagined script he'd authored while inhabiting the CEO's chair in Cupertino. Cook won't let that happen. He already broke tradition earlier this month with a plan to spend $45 billion of Apple's treasure on dividend payments and a stock buyback.
Perhaps that's why employees love him. Not for the cash, per se, but because in paying the dividend that Jobs wouldn't, Cook -- product person or not -- has proved himself to be every bit the rebel his predecessor was.
Think I'm wrong? Go ahead and tell me so using the comments box underneath. Or if you'd rather spend more time investigating the mobile computing mania that's making billions for Apple, download this new Motley Fool special report: "The Next Trillion Dollar Revolution." The research is free, but only for a limited time. Get your copy now.