If, Heaven Forbid, Tim Cook Were Hit by a Bus, Who Would Be His Successor?

Jeff Williams. Credit: Apple's Leadership page

Back in 2011 when Steve Jobs was very ill, the subject of a corporate succession plan came up. Nowadays, with a vigorous and healthy Tim Cook, there are no worries. However, a formal CEO succession plan is still necessary. Who's on it?


The subject of an Apple CEO successor is a delicate one. First, Tim Cook is healthy and will be the Apple CEO for many more years. But Apple still has a corporate responsibility to plan for the unexpected.

When we as observers think about that subject, it's tempting to pick our favorite Apple executive. Some are charming. Most are brilliant. A few are very good looking. Most are articulate. However, it's not a contest of fan favorites, and there are serious factors that come into play. We must admit that they trump our game of an executive beauty contest.

The Metrics

Ten years ago, not only did Tim Cook have to prove himself to Steve Jobs with brilliant supply chain management, but he also had to demonstrate a certain temperament. A CEO candidate has to not only want the job, but he has to be willing to tread the fine line between being well respected but also being demanding. Stories are legion about Tim Cook's stern demeanor that can invoke great personal tension and subsequent brilliant performance. Yet, we know that Mr. Cook has also generated an atmosphere at Apple with less sheer fear. It's just about a perfect military leadership model.

One doesn't go to extreme personal limits for a leader who isn't respected and who doesn't demand the best from everyone.

That's not to say that there aren't several Apple executives with high skill levels and good natured personalities. But the demands of a company of Apple's wealth, size and power create huge personal demands. Not every senior vice president aspires to the job.

This would absolutely rule out Sir Jonathan Ive, a rather shy visionary who isn't comfortable on the live stage. His role is the behind the scenes designer. 

And so we must look instead to outward signs. Who is being put in a position of leadership? Who is being thrust into the public eye? Who has been promoted to the second highest ranking executive, the Chief Operating Officer (COO)? Who is trusted to speak about delicate issues? Who has been tasked with developing a brand new product? 

The answer to all these questions is Apple's COO Jeff Williams.

More and more, Mr. Williams is taking the stage at Apple keynote events. He is being tested and honed. According to his bio, linked above:

Jeff played a key role in Apple’s entry into the mobile phone market with the launch of iPhone, and since 2010 has led worldwide operations for all products. In 2013, he began leading the Apple Watch project.

At Apple's special Event in March, 2015, Mr. Williams received accolades for his presentation on Research Kit. He has continued to be part of the presentation team. Recently, in an interview, Mr. Williams spoke out about the democratization of medicine and human rights. These are delicate corporate issues that only the most trusted executive is tasked with speaking about.

Under intense scrutiny from Walt Mossberg at recode on the product in his charge, the Apple Watch, Mr. Williams handled the interview with tact and grace.

The Succession Plan

From all outward signs, Tim Cook will be a healthy, energetic and splendid CEO for many years to come. However, if I were to guess who would be Number One on the official succession plan, in the event of some dire happening, my vote, for all the reasons above would be Mr. Jeff Williams.