If the satirical newspaper the Onion were to do a story on Tim Cook, newly anointed chief executive officer of Apple (AAPL), it might headline the story: "Best Job in America Given to Unknown Man from Alabama."
In reality, Cook is anything but unknown. Technology mavens largely credit him with having enabled Apple to deliver superior products on time and on budget. Cook is a talented engineer with a gift for optimizing operations. The only problem: He is not Steve Jobs, the iconic visionary who transformed the way people think and interact with their computers.
The challenge for Cook is not running Apple. That he has been doing, at least operationally, for some years now. The hurdle for Cook is to expand the business, to ensure a flowing pipeline of new products that consumers want.
Fortunately for Cook, as New York Times business columnist Joe Nocera noted on CNN, Apple has a robust lineup of products on tap. This will ensure strong sales for the near term. What comes next will determine the company’s future. And that responsibility now falls squarely into the lap of Tim Cook.
Coming up with future iterations of the current lineup of products remains important, to be sure. The bigger challenge will lie in devising new "gotta have ‘em" products—such as the iPhone, iPad, and iTunes—that consumers cannot live without.
So with that in mind, here’s what Cook, as well as any other CEO taking over from a legend, needs to do.
1, Be yourself. Jobs is "a dreamer and innovator who is also a doer and executor and … a kind of creative and business genius at the same time," as leadership author Michael Useem said on NPR last January, when Jobs stepped way from day-to-day operations. Cook has strengths. He has proven himself and seems to have the trust of senior management and the board of directors. That should give him the confidence to continue managing.
2. Look for hitmakers. In this regard, Cook approximates the head of an entertainment company responsible for generating popular songs, TV shows, and movies. He must find ways to make Apple a place at which talented engineers and designers want to work.
3. Be more public. Cook lacks Jobs’s presence but is a fine public speaker. As head of an iconic company, he must make himself and his senior team more visible. This will reassure the Apple community that the company they have known will continue. Cook should also find ways to give more prominence to the design team. Let the public see who is developing the products.
There is a hint of good news in Jobs’ resignation letter in that he remains chairman. Cook can rely on Jobs for advice and ask him to lend his presence at new product introductions.
The proof will be in performance. Apple has succeeded not only by virtue of Steve Jobs’s leadership but also because he attracted and retained talented innovators who developed products that delight consumers. Cook has a foundation that he helped to build. It’s now his opportunity to continue building it.