updated 11:00 pm EDT, Mon June 3, 2013
Fuqua school series shows Cook as mature leader in Jobs' mould
In a posted series of short videos available on YouTube, the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University in North Carolina is presenting segments of an interview held with Apple CEO (and Duke graduate) Tim Cook. The talk, which was conducted in April, showcases Cook's southern-born style while echoing many of the sentiments held by his predecessor, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. The videos, which are divided into single-response segments covering topics such as "collaboration" and "intuition," offer both insight and advice from Cook.
Cook, who originally went to Auburn to be an industrial engineer, received an MBA from Fuqua and held positions at IBM and Compaq among other companies before being recruited to Apple in 1998. Since then, he has served as Senior Vice President for Worldwide Operations and then Chief Operations Officer, changing Apple's manufacturing and delivery operations complete over the course of his first decade with the company.
After serving as temporary CEO during two medical leaves of absence by Jobs, Cook became permanent CEO in 2011 just before Jobs died of complications from pancreatic cancer. He is also on the board of Nike and the National Football Association, reports AppleInsider.
On "collaboration," Cook says that he looks for people who are genuinely passionate about their ideas, but willing to recognize that it will take others to help nurture and develop the ideas to fruition. The importance of being able to appreciate the collaborative process, he said, feeds into his belief that Apple is special because it focuses on hardware, software and services -- and feels that the "magic" that distinguishes the company happens at the intersection of these three concepts, making it difficult for "someone who is focused on one of those [three things] in an of themselves ... can come up with magic."
In a segment on "ethical Leadership," Cook summarized his position as "leave things better than you found them." Not directly addressed in the video was the complications Apple has faced with the thorny issues of improving life for Chinese workers through greater employment (and at a higher average salary than is generally found in the country) while at the same time receiving international criticism for worker suicides, reports of abuse and long hours at factories, and in some cases unsafe factory conditions and some inadvertent use of child labor.
Apple responded to the reports by making a far more transparent effort at reform, with regular reports, independent audits and changes to supplier practices that have mostly resolved the outstanding difficulties -- though it hasn't fully addressed some of the larger differences between Chinese and US labor culture and practices. Cook focused his answer on the overall idea of contributing great products to society, thinking about the carbon footprint of the company, developing overall environmental policy and in general trying to make a positive impression on the world overall rather than any specific issue.
In terms of insight into the man himself, Cook revealed that the only photos of people he has in his office are of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., two role models he explains "pushed the world forward" and were well aware of the risk they were taking in doing so. He recounts in one video his decision to leave a recent job as head of operations at Compaq -- then a thriving, prosperous company -- and jump ship to Apple after no more than five minutes of talking with Jobs. He tells the 450 MBA students in the audience that his own analytical chart of "plusses and minuses" along with the advice of trusted friends told him not to take the job at Apple, but his "gut instinct" -- which he cautions is something that matures and gets better with experience -- told him to take what was then a huge professional risk.
As has been seen in some of Cook's public speeches, his private speech to the Fuqua grads occasionally drifted into somewhat superficial advice such as "find your journey" referring to the fact that it is hard to predict -- particularly for young people -- the path they will find themselves on later in life. For guidance, Cook reminded the students that his own "25 year plan," written as part of his MBA, was only accurate for about two years following its writing, but said only that students need to have and keep sight of a "North Star" of a vision for the future and not to worry about shorter-term changes and reversals. While vaguer in nature than Jobs' thoughts on the same topic, Jobs in a commencement address once told Stanford students to ingest a wide variety of life experiences to help create a better-realized vision on what they want to do with their lives.
One question Cook was quick to answer (rather than taking a trademark pause) was on what three things he focused on as a CEO. "People, strategy and execution" was the quick answer for what he spends most of his time on. "There are some [other issues] that still arise," he said. "But if you get those three things right ... the world is a great place."
One of the more insightful moments from the videos presented thus far came from a student questioner, who asked Cook when they should listen to their professors and when they should "break the rules." Cook replied that students should "rarely" follow the rules, and instead write their own -- not implying anarchy but instead to develop an internalized, personal discipline that works to help them achieve their goals. "I think that if you do follow things in a formulaic manner ... you will wind up at best being the same as everyone else," he said. "If you want to excel, you can't do that."
"I've watched a lot of companies do that," Cook elaborated, "and I think that's a rotten strategy ... maybe they'll be good for a few months or something." He added that what Fuqua and Duke had given him and offered its students was instruction on how to think, how to collaborate, how to work with people with very different views -- fundamental skills that go into developing a set of rules that will work.