One year in: What we’ve learned about CEO Tim Cook

When Tim Cook was named permanent chief executive of Apple(s AAPL) a year ago Friday, most discussion centered on what Jobsian qualities and trademark values Cook didn’t possess: He’s not a product visionary, or “crazy” or charismatic enough.

But very quickly into his official tenure replacing Steve Jobs, Cook signaled which qualities he would bring to the table. One week in, Cook elevated 22-year employee Eddy Cue from vice president to SVP of Internet Services, making him part of the company’s small, tight leadership team. A week later, Cook began a charitable donation matching program for employees — the first of its kind for the company.

A year later, Apple finds itself at the top of the business and tech worlds: it’s the most valuable publicly traded U.S. company, and just weeks from possibly unveiling what could be two of its best-selling products ever: a next-generation iPhone and a smaller, cheaper iPad. The path to this point hasn’t been without its bumps: Apple’s had to do some apologizing in the last year — over personnel decisions and environmental policies — but financially, it’s in the best shape in its history with its stock trading near $670 and more than $100 billion in the bank. (See the timeline below for the most important milestones from Cook’s first year.)

Cue’s promotion that first week was common sense — he’d been negotiating Apple’s most important content deals for years and heads up its all-important iCloud effort — and the charity program was too: it was nonsensical for a rich, liberal company like Apple not to have such a program. Those moves, along with dozens of other smaller decisions and Cook’s reactions to major events over the past year, show us the kind of CEO he is, and ultimately, the effect he’s having on Apple. With him, Apple comes off as slightly more human, more responsive to public perception, and — this might not be considered an accomplishment– he’s instilled a sense of normalcy.

Putting a friendlier face on Apple

Four big, historic things have happened at Apple since Aug. 24, 2011: Jobs’ death, the New York Times’ expose on labor conditions at Apple supplier plants in China, the decision to issue a dividend, and the epic, theatrical Samsung patent trial currently under way.

Credit: Bowen Liu/Apple Inc. via Bloomberg

Cook’s handling of the Jobs memorial service — made available online after the fact — was the public’s first look at a Cook-helmed Apple, and it showed a very human side of the company. Cook showed appropriate respect and emotion while rallying the troops forward at the same time.

Similarly, his sensitivity regarding Apple’s image and role as a corporate citizen was on display in his response to the Times’ series. Not only did Apple put out its first-ever public report detailing the environmental and labor conditions at its contractors’ facilities, he ordered an independent audit of contractors in China and addressed the issue in a Q&A session at an investor conference soon after. True, it’s pretty unlikely he would have been moved to do any of those things without outside prompting, but his response to those events was telling.

For Cook, the public perception is personal: It’s really difficult to imagine Jobs allowing himself to be photographed touring the Foxconn production facilities. “Whether workers are in Europe, or in Asia, or the U.S., we care about every worker,” he said in February. He made sure to connect those workers’ experience with a personal anecdote: “I’ve spent a lot of time in factories personally, not just as an executive. I worked at a paper mill in Alabama and a paper mill in Virginia.”

Wooing Wall Street

The $2.65 dividend, paid out last week for the first time in 17 years, was a way of quieting cranky investors unhappy that Apple was sitting on more than $100 billion in cash and liquid assets. After years of whining about it, investors finally got Cook to give in.

Cook revealed three things about himself as Apple’s leader in the way he handled these things: he believes more information and communication with customers is important; he’s willing to work with Wall Street (which has historically shown it understands very little about Apple); and he doesn’t seem to believe Apple’s privacy should be pursued at the expense of larger, more important goals.

Considering the details revealed about Apple’s product design process through testimony at the Samsung trial, that appears especially true if it means securing the company’s profits through definitive legal judgment. The jury is still out — literally — on whether letting this trial play out has been a wise gamble for Apple.

Cook clearly places importance on symbolism. Besides just responding to major events, he can be counted on to show up and put in face time with people whose decisions impact Apple: he’s popped up in a Foxconn China factory with workers, in the U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives’ office in D.C., he mingles with Wall Street analysts and with potential business partners at important networking events.

A still from the much-maligned Apple “Genius” ads that have since been pulled from TV and the web.

Cook knows perception is important, that the company has huge responsibilities and its actions have far-reaching effects. Cook has demonstrated that what ultimately guides him is logic and rationality; he does the math, he makes decisions based on the best possible outcomes for Apple. (How does this play into new products lines? We probably won’t know for another month or so.)

He doesn’t pretend to be a product visionary, but he takes his role as caretaker of Apple’s legacy extremely seriously. Jobs was a smart businessman and actually very conservative, but he also took necessary creative risks based on gut feelings. Cook is bringing in MBAs, more people like himself, and listens to Wall Street. With those decisions, with the dividend, with being more open, he’s taking steps that ultimately make Apple look more like other American companies.

The biggest question about this humanizing and normalizing of Apple: is it good for the company? Jobs’ cultivated mystique kept Apple on a distant plane that seemed somehow “revolutionary” and removed from other makers of electronic gadgets. Apple is just a company, but Jobs, his personality and his tendency toward secrecy set the company apart in many ways.

Cook hasn’t been perfect — he’s green-lit ads that are causing much weeping and gnashing of teeth for being too conventional — and as we were warned when he was hired, Cook’s made what’s looking like a lame hire of former Dixon’s CEO John Browett to replace Ron Johnson as head of Apple retail. But as an executive who stepped into the most challenging role in tech history by following such a legend, he hasn’t made the kind of mistake the could derail Apple’s amazing run.

Anniversaries like Friday’s are artificial milestones: we won’t be able to accurately judge Cook as Apple’s CEO until new products developed after Jobs’ death are introduced. No matter who is CEO, Apple’s success, after all, is based on the strength of its products.