How to Become Apple's Next CEO

“Judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment." -- Mulla Nasrudin

It'll be some time before Tim Cook is ready to step down as Apple's CEO, but I'm thinking ahead about the process for selecting the next Apple CEO.


Back when there was some discussion about who would replace Steve Jobs at Apple, a lot of different names came up. What struck me about those candidate names was that few, if any, were on a executive career path. Sure, they were bright, talented, accomplished people, but they didn't have the credentials to assume the leadership of Apple because their career path and executive experience were not sufficient.

Assuming an executive position in business (or in the military or government) is based on some principles that you don't normally see highlighted in everyday conversation about companies, including Apple. Here they are:

  • A career path geared to executive positions based on education, experience and training.
  • Disposition for and previously demonstrated leadership.
  • Time spent as second in command.
  • Successful experiences at other smaller companies.

Career Path Examples

Back when we were thinking about who might succeed Steve Jobs, perhaps one of his VPs, one of the examples I liked to cite was that of a brilliant young naval officer on board a nuclear submarine. On day, after years of brilliant engineering work, there's a crisis, and he saves the ship via experience and training. He may be promoted or given a medal, but he won't be made the captain of another submarine. He hadn't been on the career path for that, had no experience with command decisions, and hadn't served as executive officer (XO) on any other ship.

Image credit: Wikipedia.

Excellence in a career path usually comes from a passion for either management or technical work. In America, today, for historical reasons, there is little blending of the two. That wasn't always so in the past. Decades ago, distinguished scientists and engineers rose to executive management positions and called the shots. That made lesser executives jealous. but the real kicker was that many senior scientists were jerks and had no leadership skills. Today, in the U.S., the career paths are generally divergent because scientists and engineers spend little time training for executive leadership.

I recall a famous story, years ago, about an IBM executive who made a disastrous $100 million mistake. He was called into CEO Louis Gerstner's office expecting to be fired, but he wasn't because he was the only executive on the planet who had earned that kind of critical job experience. He left Mr. Gerstner's office a sobered and wiser man from his experience.

Another example I like is the career of Neil Armstrong. Mr. Armstrong started out in the Korean war as a Navy jet pilot, flying from an aircraft carrier, and not without incident. Later he became a test pilot. Being a first-rate test pilot along with graduate school at USC and top physical condition earned him an astronaut position. Successfully handling an in-orbit emergency with an Agena target vehicle along with a last-second, life-saving ejection from the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle provided valuable experience. Having had three major brushes with death, there was no better pilot than Neil Armstrong in talent and experience when it came time to pick the Apollo 11 crew. Credentials matter.

The Effect of Movies and Books

Good story telling means dispensing with tedious details and getting on with the action. That's why so many exciting military, medical, SciFi, and legal dramas start out with lead characters already in place, ready to face the challenges and dazzling events of the story.

Sometimes for the sake of the story, in order to present an attractive heroine by fiat, the screenplay author will have a beautiful blonde heroine with command flight experience appear out of nowhere with a Ph.D. in physics at age 25, ready to run a major project. Of course, that doesn't happen in real life. Or very, very rarely. But it makes for a story that's appealing. It can also capture our imagination which is good.

The story telling idea of instant, grand success has its place, but in the real world, there is a long period of trial and error, success and failure, career and family choices. These are too boring to present in a movie, but they're part of building a real life career.

Unfortunately, there are those who take, or wish to take, movies as the norm, rather than as a concession to good story telling.

Second in Command

Whether it's government, military or business, a key component of executive leadership is time spent as second in command. Calling back to that submarine example above, it's the XO who spends a few years watching and learning from the captain who will, if he's recommended, take over the command of his own submarine. In business and government, deputies are generally the ones poised to assume the leadership role some day.

At the highest levels politics can often interfere, but the general rule is that time spent in meetings and decision making environments, plus standing in on occasion while the CEO is on vacation or traveling, is the right kind of executive training. It also helps when that deputy also spent time in charge of a smaller company or agency, and is able to bring that experience to bear as the lieutenant until it's time to step up.

When Steve Jobs was ill and taking leaves of absence, and even before that, he had selected Tim Cook to stand in for him. That was a significant outward sign, but many chose to ignore it and actually suggested, incredibly, Scott Forstall as the likely choice of successor.

Mr. Jobs's lieutenants. Image Credit: YouTube

So, as observers, we should be watching who Tim Cook depends on. Who appears on stage with him? Who is he seen with? Who takes over when, someday, Tim Cook takes that long-awaited three week vacation to Hawaii. Or, heaven forbid, has his own medical leave and must designate someone to stand in for him.

Final Thoughts

A career path in executive leadership is a long and arduous process. Mistakes are made and learned from on, hopefully, a smaller stage, where unmitigated disaster is not in the offing. We, as observers and technical people tend to admire the most talented and technical people before us and assume they're qualified to run a really, really big company. Often, as we have found out with some notable startups, they're quickly out of their league.

Anyone can start a company and drive it to US$1M annual revenues. Perhaps even $10M. But it's well known that the skill set to run a $100M company is quite different. And executives who are well qualified in the $1B range don't always make it when the company grows to $10B in revenues. Apple is more than an order of magnitude bigger than that.

Today, there are still precious few people who possess the Apple DNA, temperament and career path development to assume such a leadership role. It may take a decade or so for that someone to rise to the top in another corporation -- or rise from within Apple -- and emerge with the right kind of experience and credentials when the time is right. We don't have a glimmer right now who that might be, but watch for the signs I've cited. In time, we'll get to know his name.

Or her.


Teaser question mark via Shutterstock.