An interesting piece over at Forbes caught my eye this week, which applied Toynbee’s theories of the rise and fall of civilizations to Microsoft. In the June piece, Philippe Silberzahn argues that Steve Ballmer’s approach to Microsoft will lead the company to collapse, if it has not already done so. He concludes that “the idea that entrepreneurs should hand over the keys to experienced controllers such as Steve Ballmer is fraught with danger.”
It is not uncommon for pundits and academics to criticize Microsoft generally and Steve Ballmer in particular, but my thoughts on reading this article turned to another company’s management transition: Apple is to this decade what Microsoft was to the 1990’s, and Apple is in the midst of a massive management transition of its own. Will Tim Cook go down in history as the man who executed Apple to death, just as Steve Ballmer has managed Microsoft?
Let us take a moment to examine Ballmer’s sins. Like Tim Cook, Steve Ballmer had a long history and close personal relationship with the visionary entrepreneur who founded his company. Microsoft was near its zenith in 2000 when Ballmer took the reins as CEO, but the company has struggled to transition beyond the core product lines he acquired from Bill Gates. Ballmer managed Microsoft’s financial performance quite successfully but seems entirely unsuccessful in really leading the company and exciting customers.
This is not to say that Microsoft is not successful at innovating. In fact, one does not need to look very far to see sparkling innovation emanating from deep within the company. The original Surface and reader/tablet technology, for example, was a decade ahead of the competition and successfully predicted today’s post-PC world. But Microsoft management, led by Ballmer, squashed this innovation to preserve the status quo Windows/Office ecosystem.
Now let us consider the situation at Apple. Steve Jobs probably does not deserve the wealth of inventions and patents attributed to him, but he was remarkably innovative, energizing, and driven. I think of jobs as the patron saint of creative destruction, tirelessly working to drive everyone around him to innovate regardless of the cost.
Steve Jobs was smart enough to surround himself with talented managers capable of executing up to his exacting standards. From Mark Papermaster to Bob Mansfield to Scott Forstall, Apple would not have been successful without Jobs’ lieutenants. But none was more successful than Tim Cook, who managed Apple’s manufacturing and supply chain dynamo.
Steve Jobs handing Apple over to someone like Tim Cook is indeed analogous to Bill Gates’ selection of Steve Ballmer at Microsoft. It is likely that Cook will successfully steer Apple to a decade of success regardless of stagnating innovation. Apple will dominate the remainder of this decade, and Tim Cook will be celebrated as its captain.
But will Apple stagnate? Will the company falter in its drive to out-innovate the entire technology industry, including itself? Steve Jobs’ success will prove devilishly difficult to duplicate. Although Tim Cook is not a “bean counter” like Ballmer, he’s not an innovator like Jobs either. Cook’s challenge will be to champion and protect innovation even in the face of inevitable criticism from inside and out.
For now, it remains to be seen if Tim Cook is, like Steve Ballmer, a victim of the “Wile E. Coyote” syndrome noted by Silberzahn in the Forbes article. Apple is certainly running fast, but is it running out of juice? Will it maintain the creative dynamism that led it to dominate the entire tech industry? Or will Tim Cook masterfully drive the company off a cliff, following GM, Kodak, and Microsoft?