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“Make no mistake: he’s not necessarily a kind, gentle guy if he needs to get something done. He’s a very hard-nosed, demanding boss,” Howe says. “And he’s very much of the Steve Jobs model, where if you’re the janitor you get to make excuses. If you’re the vice president, you don’t.”

Cook, in fact, engineered a major shakeup in Apple’s top ranks this fall. Scott Forstall, the long-serving head of iPhone software development, stepped down and his responsibilities were divided among other executives. Company watchers attributed his departure to difficulties collaborating with other departments and to the scathing reviews that greeted Apple’s Maps application, which replaced Google Maps.

Another senior vice president left at the same time: John Browett, who headed Apple’s stores. Browett had tried to make his mark by cutting employee hours, leaving fewer people to help customers. Browett was overridden. He lasted just six months on the job.

“Being gentle and being a pushover are two different things,” says Milanesi.