The Visionary vs The Operator

Apple recently released it’s new iPhone.  The reviews are in.  They upgraded the camera, software, and came out with some new colors.  It’s semi-waterproof, and dust proof.  Battery life is better.  The real radical change is the lack of headphone jack.

I am not sure that qualifies as a great leap forward.  Although, in Apple’s defense the marginal change in succeeding phones is small given that the first changes from phone to phone were pretty large.

What am interested to watch with Apple is how the company is managed. Steve Jobs was a visionary.  He passed away in October of 2011.  Losing him was a shock psychologically to Apple-even though the employees all knew it was coming.  The new CEO, Tim Cook has had enough time to transition.  Cook doesn’t strike me as a “visionary” in the same way that Jobs was.

He is an operator.

When companies start, they need visionaries.  Good visionaries surround themselves with operators.  Both can be found in the same package but it’s not as common as you think.  Visionaries usually propel companies forward in very disruptive ways.  They can be bomb throwers.  Operators are not bomb throwers.  They take the vision, and actually put it into practice and grow the company.

Transition from visionary to operator can be very difficult depending on how everyone handles it.  I have seen it go poorly and smoothly.  In Apple’s case, once Jobs was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the writing was on the wall.  It had to go smoothly.  Often, it’s tough because the visionary doesn’t have the vision to understand they are impeding the progress of the company.  On the other hand, operators might be too quick to usher them out.  It’s a very delicate balance.

In many cases, a clumsy transition can kill the company.

Currently, Apple is so big that it doesn’t face a lot of competition.  That may change.  When it faces some real competition, having an operator at the helm could hasten it’s demise.  As observers, we see marginal innovation in the new products that they roll out.  The watch is marginally better.  Their computers get better displays, faster CPUs.  But, where is the new visionary game changing product that really disrupts the business and creates new streams of cash for the company?  Where is that going to come from?  It’s really hard to say.  In the past, you had confidence that Jobs would figure it out.

Companies I have invested in have gone from visionary to operator.  Some transitions were rough and ugly.  Some smooth.  Some were done because there was no other choice.  Some, because the visionary had the vision (self awareness) to see they had taken the company as far as they could.

I think the best outcomes for a lot of companies is to find a way to keep the visionary around and do the things they do-while handing over the operating and decision making power to the operator so they can grow the company.  It takes good awareness on the part of the visionary to stay inside their box, while still emanating some vision.  Many times, they don’t have that awareness and the only thing a company can do is get rid of them.