Apple’s John Browett Affair: Cooked

“As you enter positions of trust and power, dream a little before you think.” — Toni Morrison

The recent apple affair with Tim Cook and John Browett can be analyzed from several perspectives. First, as captain of the ship, it’s Tim Cook’s first visible mistake, and there was a process by which he corrected it. Second, one has to ask if it’s happened before.


Back in 2001, the vision of Steve Jobs came to fruition when he eagerly introduced the first Apple retail store in Tysons corner. That vision has endured to this day, and it has made Apple great.

Steve Jobs at Tyson's Corner

Steve Jobs at Tysons Corner 2001 (YouTube)

Recently, there was some fuss about how there may have been an initiative to tinker with the operations of the Apple retail stores. Namely, if one could reduce staff and cut back on the legendary customer service a bit, there would be additional revenue to extract from the stores. This came to the surface just as the fever of the iPhone 5 is peaking. Plus, the back to school season and looming holidays combined to make the initiative look like a very, very bad idea. The focus started on John Browett, then recently turned to Tim Cook.


In trying to understand the events, I turned to my own experience as a former member of Apple’s Federal sales team, nearly a decade ago now. In that environment, I saw both sides of the issue. There was Tim Cook, to whom my boss reported, not far up the chain, and a large group of sales executives, who were under the gun for sales and performance.

The driving atmosphere was that Apple was building great products, (even though, at the time, the Macs weren’t Intel-based), and that really good sales teams would be able to convey that to customers. However, as usual, there were also serious internal roadblocks, too many to get into here, and external roadblocks, namely a very entrenched Microsoft enterprise business that Apple was tackling with a PowerPC.

I watched as senior sales executives were under the watchful eye of Tim Cook, a numbers man, who was always mindful of less than miraculous sales, and who, sometimes, didn’t grasp the hurdles faced down in the trenches. But it was okay for us. We had the sparkling vision of Steve Jobs to inspire us.

Another driving atmosphere from on high was that if only Apple could find the right kind of sales VPs, in all sales sectors, all would be well. This was at a time when the Mac’s infrastruture and corporate commitment were ill-equipped to deal with Microsoft.  It was a pollyanna approach, driven by the vision of Mr. Jobs combined with a ruthless attention to sales numbers. Senior sales VPs had to make strong claims to keep their jobs, and failure remained an option. Mid- to high-level execs came and went as they made promises (or were maneuvered into them) they couldn’t keep and were let go. Marching orders to increase revenue cannot be pooh-poohed or dismissed by any VP in that environment.  Of course, that was well before the huge successes of the iPod touch, iPad, and iPhone, which almost seem to sell themselves these days. Again, thanks to the vision of Steve Jobs.

So my reaction to the current affair was that I’ve seen it before.

In another vein, I have recently used a military analogy with Tim Cook. He’s the captain of the Apple ship, and he carries the ultimate responsibility for everything that happens on his watch. Pushback from the John Browett affair has blown up, and Mr. Cook must take formal responsibility no matter what. So to say that all’s well and, aw shucks, we don’t believe our hero, Mr. Cook, could have been behind this, it doesn’t matter. CEO’s make mistakes, and this one falls on the shoulders of the CEO, no matter what the internal details were.


So far, I’ve conveyed what I know from experience. My speculation is that the internal tenor of Apple got a little out of whack. The luminous team of Steve Jobs/Ron Johnson is now replaced by Tim Cook/John Browett. There’s no overriding visionary to guide the ship while the numbers man rides herd on sales. Instead, there were two men of like mind who thought there was additional revenue to be had by tinkering with the Jobs/Johnson formula for success.

When it blew up, my guess is that Tim Cook instantly saw what the problem was, and for the good of Apple, quickly reversed course to avoid an iceberg. That resulted in the quick announcement by Kristin Huguet, an Apple spokesperson. After all, what’s good for Apple is that the CEO and Apple remain unscathed. For the good of the company, even if Mr. Cook pushed SVP John Browett into a mistake, it’s Mr. Browett who will take the fall. Mr. Cook is a hard man to resist, and perhaps Browett didn’t speak truth to power, but made his promises and marched on.

Sailing On

In summary, the lesson here is that CEOs do make mistakes. Tim Cook has never been the CEO of a company before, let alone a technology giant. Every once in awhile, this captain will run into the sharp edges of the legacy that Steve Jobs built, and he’ll get tripped up. This is a human thing to happen. I’ll give him credit for seeing the problem and correcting it. Whether Mr. Browett takes the fall for that mistake or it’s all washed under the deck remains to be seen.