Even When It’s Boring, Apple’s Still on Top of the World

Forget Christmas – for Apple devotees, the most magical time of the year is September when the latest products are announced. And just like Christmas, there’s a giddy sense of anticipation as everyone tries to predict what new toys Apple will unveil.

Except this year, many have reacted to the new product announcements as if they’ve just been given socks from Grandma. Sure, there were the three new iPhone X models and an Apple Watch that can alert emergency services when you’re having a heart attack. But there was a definite lack of surprises otherwise.

Cue the nostalgia for the Steve Jobs era, where “One more thing” actually meant something big was coming. But should Apple really care? Not even two months have passed since it became the first US company to break the $1-trillion market cap. Complain about the lack of Jobs-era product design all you want – whatever Apple is doing is clearly working.

The Apple of today is a very different company than it was when it was under Jobs’ leadership. His “my way or the highway” leadership style extended to the product design – a select few devices done a certain way – no exceptions. It wasn’t quite Ford’s “You can have it in any colour as long as it’s black” but there was little room for deviation from Jobs’ singular vision.

I wonder what he would have thought of the Tim Cook era of Apple, where we can buy rose gold iPhones? Would Jobs have approved of the lower cost iPhone XR, which will be available in funky colours? There’s now even an Apple stylus, something that Jobs was famously dead-set against.

It’s safe to say that Tim Cook is no Steve Jobs. In some approaches, he’s even the anti-Jobs. Yet whatever Cook is doing, a trillion dollars’ worth of data says it’s a sound approach.

So what gives? What does Cook know that made him throw out the Jobs playbook? And why is it working?

Life after Steve

So much time has been devoted to the singular leadership style of Jobs that rehashing it just seems like making the fourteenth sequel in a tired movie franchise. Yes, we know he was fired and rehired a decade later to spark a miraculous turnaround. Yes, he was an obsessive design genius and brilliant marketer. Yes, he was responsible for some of the most influential products of the 21st century.

Cook’s story is not nearly as explosive. He didn’t exactly start from scratch when he was named Apple’s CEO, inheriting an insanely popular and successful brand. And he can’t boast a category-changing product to the scale of the iPhone, although the Apple Watch comes close.

Instead, Cook has chosen to focus on honing Apple’s organisational strengths and building on existing product sets. He’s not as involved in product innovation as Jobs was, but devotes much more attention to creating a collaborative and sustainable work culture. From Wall Street to other device manufacturers, he’s made it policy to seek out strategic partnerships.

Perhaps most importantly, he’s made investments into services like Apple Music, quietly setting the stage for the next phase of the brand’s life. The hardware space is becoming more competitive every year, and Apple won’t always be able to differentiate itself on the quality of its physical products.

Leaning into its strengths as a platform gives Apple a huge advantage. The sheer number of people who use services like Siri and the iCloud means Apple has a wealth of data on their users’ behaviour and market preferences. The people – or at least their user data – have spoken, and they want rose gold iPhones and customisable Apple Watch faces.

Jobs rose to the challenge at a time when Apple needed to prove itself, to make bold moves, to practice disruptive innovation, make good on its promise to “think differently”. He was a turnaround CEO when the brand needed a major overhaul – to shed old baggage that wasn’t working and embrace change. But the Apple of today doesn’t need a turnaround CEO. It needs someone who can sustain growth.

Cook is the right leader for this point in time, practicing sustainable disruption where it matters. He doesn’t have Jobs’ creative genius but does anyone really care? He understands how to analyse the product and customer ecosystem that Jobs built so well. Adapting to changing market forces means being able to read them, and Cook has a knack for sitting back and analysing the data at hand to make smart, long-term decisions.

He knows what to do to sustain growth and relevance for a brand that’s become established. And that’s no easy task, especially as the competition catches up.

The right leadership for the right moment

If there’s one lesson to take away from Apple’s journey to a trillion, it’s not that you should try and be like Steve Jobs – because let’s face it, you’re setting yourself up for failure. It’s that as your organisation enters into different lifecycles, your approach to leadership must change with it.

The trick lies in knowing when that point of change comes; when a start-up enters a phase where it should consolidate its growth, or when a legacy organisation finds itself losing ground and needs to drastically realign. Misunderstanding the market, as well as your organisation’s role in it, is something no amount of trying to be like Jobs or Bezos or Buffet can make up for.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether Jobs is more successful than Cook, or vice versa. The only way to replicate either of their successes is to devote the same attention to knowing your business, industry, customers and competitors as thoroughly as Apple does.

What do you think? Is it time to put the Steve Jobs persona away and start looking into how Apple has shifted since his passing? Should Tim Cook’s measured analytical style be the template that business leaders follow?

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