Computing has long been described as something similar to religion. There have been “nerd-wars” fought over Windows vs Mac and Word vs Wordperfect vs Wordstar, for decades so it’s really no surprise that the leaders of many computer companies are becoming “God-Like” in their evangelism -- but is it a good thing?
To a certain extent, yes… it’s a good thing to have a person as a focal point for your company. It's kind of like having a thought-leader as a "mascot" and it's particularly important in the early years as it helps to build recognition. After a while though, the focus switches from the company to the person, and that’s not a good thing.
It's not that Tim isn't innovative or that he isn't trying to add anything to the mix, it's simply that he can't compete with Steve's legacy. It's too tough an act to follow.
In Apple’s case, the whole “leader-messiah” complex did wonders for the company, particularly in the recent revival but it’s now caused the company to become a one-trick-pony. There's little to follow it up with. The focus is barely on Apple, it’s still on Steve - and it's certainly not on Tim.
Then there’s Microsoft, who arguably had the first of the tech-Messianic CEOs, Bill Gates. While Bill was recognised for his genius, he did a great job of keeping the focus where it was needed, mainly on the Microsoft name. Things changed when Steve Ballmer took over though, Steve’s focus was much more on his own larger-than-life presence than on Microsoft. The repercussions for the company were severe, especially as his leadership was less than stellar.
New CEO, Satya Nadella seems to have his work cut out for him getting the company back on its feet but he’s made a pretty good start, keeping his personal profile low and Microsoft’s high. That’s a good start but personally, I think he needs to set up a few additional “evangelists” within Microsoft to ensure that the leadership is a “joint one”.
IBM is probably the exact opposite of Apple. A company trading solely on its name. There have been a couple of IBM evangelists over the years but every time one of them seems to be getting too much of the spotlight, they seem to be promoted into a less evangelical position. There’s really nobody to follow at IBM, no thought leaders.
In my opinion, that’s a big problem because to the larger world, IBM appears to be a largely leaderless giant.
I'm not suggesting that Ginni Rometty is doing a bad job, in fact, IBM have made some great steps forward in the past few years. The problem is simply one of being largely “faceless”.
In the old world, you could trade solely on your company's name but today's tech environments are all about "social computing" - and you can't have social computing without at least a certain level of personal interaction.
Google and Alphabet
In some ways, Google represents the perfect balance of evangelism vs corporate image. There are at least three names which are synonmous with Google, current CEO Sundar Pichai and former CEOs, Larry Page and Eric Schmidt. There’s also Marissa Mayer, if she ever returns from Yahoo.
What is interesting though is that Google seems to encourage thought-leadership and many of the google developers and internal thought-leaders communicate through blogging, twitter and even facebook.
In doing this, Google has become like the proverbial hydra; "cut off one head and another two grow to replace it".
This approach seems to be working very well, Despite their size, Google is more approachable than ever and have a great rapport with their customers. In fact, like Apple, many of Google’s customers are doing their evangelism for them.
Now that’s an idea…. crowdsourced corporate evangelism!