The shift from Number Two to Number One

With Steve Job’s recent medical leave underway there has been a lot of focus on Tim Cook, Apple’s number two person for many years.  While Tim has stepped in several times in the past to run the ship while Steve was out for his medical treatments, this time it appears to have hit home to the reporters and analysts that Mr. Cook may actually be needed to step into the number one spot on a more permanent basis.   The industry pundits appear concerned.

There is really something to this Number Two to Number One thing.  It IS different.  I don’t believe it’s about vision or strategy though.  I believe it’s about the span of control and intense spotlight that the number one person has to contend with.  What few people seem to be aware of is that the companies with strong management teams at the top do well because of a strong number one AND a strong number two.  Rarely is there a number three with the same breadth of organizational control (it would just be a top heavy vertical organization if they did).

There have been a number of number two players that have taken over – Craig Barrett at Intel is one example but I would add executives like Kevin Rollins at Dell (you can argue about how those turned out but for several years they were very successful).  Tim Cook will be just another in a line of number twos that end up in the top spot.

I have some empathy for his current situation because I, like him, was a ‘perrenial number two’ in the companies that I worked for and even the company that I co-founded.  I would tell people that I liked being number two and they would snicker.  As much of a control freak as I am people really just didn’t believe that I didn’t want to be the top person and assumed it was false modesty or some game that I was playing to not look to ambitious to the number one person.  It wasn’t a game.  There is a definite role for a strong number two that enhances the game of a strong number one and it was a role that I cherished.  (By the way, being a strong number two to a weak number one doesn’t go well and doesn’t last long).  I’ve spent the last two years going through my own transition from COO to CEO – even though it’s on a very different scale, and there are some things that I’ve observed about the transition that may be worth watching here.

There are several advantages to being number two; 1) there tends to be less internal focus on number two and it’s easier to get the facts and the pulse of what’s going on as a number two (not a lot of yes-men to number twos!), 2) externally there is less pressure on a number two as industry analysts, press, etc tend to focus on number one (anyone know who is number two at Microsoft, GE, IBM, etc?), and the role of number two tends to be an execution role so there is a lot of opportunity to roll-up the sleeves and dig into meaty problems and work them to resolution – without people being intimidated by the top guy being involved.  If you look at Tim Cook’s history those are roles that he appears to have played very, very well.  It doesn’t diminish Steve Job’s accomplishments in any way or Tim Cook’s.  Together they appear to have been good for the company.

Stepping out into the top role is a massive change.  Tim Cook will need to be able to deal with the focus.  It can be intense and unnerving for someone who is not an externally driven person.  He will need to find a number two that complements him.  Having two number twos at the top or only a number one also doesn’t work very well (see Compaq post-Canion, or Microsoft now with the loss of the Gates/Balmer team as an example).

Tim Cook has been a real success as Apple’s number two.  The role that he will be taking on is much different than what he has been doing.  The analysts are right on watching this closely but I don’t believe it’s about ‘Vision’.  I believe it’s about the significant personal shift from being Number Two to Number One.

Let me know what you think.

Posted in CEO

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