"I'm hearing that people can't make decisions now," says Rob Enderle, a longtime technology analyst. Enderle is not a fan of Cook; he rates the CEO's freshman year only as a C– performance. But he concedes the decision-making issue may well be the result of that cultural shift. "When people who have been micromanaged lose the micromanager, they can be afraid because they've been trained not to be risk takers."
There have been defections, most notably that of retail boss Ron Johnson, who left to head J.C. Penny. But companies like Apple develop star executives, and it's no surprise when one leaves, it's to become a CEO. Cook's challenge wasn't to stop that flow -- there's no way he could -- but to manage the fallout, which is exactly what he did.
For example, after Apple cut back employees at the Apple Store this summer -- a store whose signature appeal is its friendly, knowledgeable staff -- Senior Vice President John Browett (likely under instructions from Cook) sent out a memo telling store employees that Apple had "messed up." Can you conceive of that memo going out under Jobs?
Apple's China situation is somewhat different. As COO and the man most in charge of Apple's supply chain, Cook arguably deserves part of the blame for allowing the plight of overworked employees at Hon Hai's Foxconn factories in China (whch build most of Apple's products) to fester for so long. But suffering under a barrage of truly terrible publicity following a searing exposé of conditions in the factories by the New York Times, Cook as CEO didn't just hunker down. He's pushed to make significant changes.
As a result, Apple and its suppliers agreed to allow the Fair Labor Association to inspect three Foxconn facilities in February and March in "one of the most comprehensive and detailed assessments in the history of manufacturing," the group said. On Tuesday, the group reported the results of its follow-up investigation: "Our verification shows that the necessary changes, including immediate health and safety measures, have been made. We are satisfied that Apple has done its due diligence thus far to hold Foxconn accountable for complying with the action plan."
Compare that action to that of Cook's peers in Silicon Valley and indeed throughout the tech industry (most use Foxconn's factories, too): Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman publicly fretted any action might raise HP's costs. The rest of the industry said nothing, and if they've done anything to improve their own China situations, they've been silent.
Filling two pairs of Jobs' giant shoes
To say that Cook had enormous shoes to fill when Steve Jobs retired would be trite and an understatement. There wasn't just one Steve Jobs, the most celebrated CEO in the world -- there were two. "There was Steve Jobs, and there was the idea of Steve Jobs," says Sutton. To his credit, Cook has not tried to be either one.
Both the retail store issue and the much more significant Foxconn situation point to a man who is not afraid to act differently than his predecessor. Even if Cook did not order Browett to change course at the Apple Store division, the fact that it happened at all speaks to the positive changes inside Apple under his stewardship.