Leadership

Leadership Lessons From Apple CEO Tim Cook

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There was simply no way to predict how Apple would do without Steve Jobs. But that didn’t stop anyone from speculating. Tech pundit John Dvorak said, “At some point, Apple becomes like a John Wayne movie with no John Wayne. You begin to notice something is missing. Apple without Steve Jobs is Sony.”

When Tim Cook took over as Apple CEO, I had a decidedly different take: “Apple has a solid foundation as the most powerful and influential technology company on the planet. It has a unique culture, but one that Steve Jobs built to last, as he knew this day would surely come for some time now.”

I went on to say that Apple’s iconic co-founder “infused a new way of thinking” that is “baked into” Apple’s culture “in a way that can live on without Jobs.”

In an internal email, Cook vowed to stay true to that culture. “I want you to be confident that Apple is not going to change," he wrote. "I cherish and celebrate Apple's unique principles and values. Steve built a company and culture that is unlike any other in the world and we are going to stay true to that-it is in our DNA.”

But I also knew that much of the company’s success going forward would “depend on new chief Tim Cook and rest of Apple’s management team,” and that “despite Cook’s promise, things are going to change. They have to change.”

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Indeed things have changed. But Cook has managed to walk that fine line between staying true to what’s unique about the company while adding value in ways that only he could – ways that even Steve Jobs could not have done. And the way he runs Apple offers powerful lessons for every current and aspiring executive and business leader.  

Don’t fix what isn’t broken. If there was ever an organization that had every arrow pointed in the right direction, it was Apple when Cook took over. Iconic brand, check. Insanely innovative products, check. Think Different culture, check. Unique flat-management structure, check. Cook resisted the temptation to get his pawprints all over everything that didn't need it and made his mark where it counted. Realizing that Apple is not about him but about the products, the customers and the employees is impressive.    

Keep calm and have faith. When analysts were saying the company had lost its innovation mojo and the stock had lost $200 billion of market cap from its peak, Cook never panicked. He instead implemented the biggest share buyback program in history, a dividend increase and a 7:1 stock split. And in this week’s launch of the iPhone 6, Apple Watch and Apple Pay we see the results of his patience and faith in his team.  

Don’t try to be what you’re not. I say this over and over but this is perhaps the most powerful example to make the point. If there was ever a temptation to emulate a great man, Cook had to feel it. After all, everybody and his brother was trying to be like Steve Jobs. And yet Cook resisted. The truth is people are not chameleons. If you try to change who you are you end up behaving like a psychopath. It doesn’t work.

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You can be nice and competitive. Cook may be friendlier to Wall Street and the media, and he certainly has that southern gentlemen vibe going on, but he’s no pushover. When iOS chief Scott Forstall’s disruptive nature became toxic to the management team, Cook ousted him. And he continues to fight tooth and nail with Samsung and Google on both competitive and legal battlefields.

Make risky but smart bets. Two of the top failure modes for CEOs of highly successful companies are to either sit back on your laurels and stop taking risks or take enormously stupid strategic risks, such as a megamerger. Cook did neither. But he hired several fashion-industry execs, including Yves St. Laurent CEO Paul Deneve and Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts, to infuse their decidedly non-tech expertise into Apple’s upcoming smartwatch and retail operations.  

Put your money where your mouth is. In a gutsy move that went largely unnoticed, when the stock was tanking Cook chose to forfeit up to one third of his stock-based compensation – which accounts for nearly all of his compensation – if Apple’s stock underperforms relative to the S&P 500. That’s right, he actually laid $130 million over eight years on the line. No upside and no small print.

While Tim Cook has done many things to distinguish himself since joining Apple as head of operations 16 years ago, his actions as chief executive of this fabled company have shown him to be a formidable leader that is equal to the challenge, holds himself accountable and sets a powerful example for others. We can all learn from his example.  

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