Q&A with 'Tim Cook: The Genius Who Took Apple to the Next Level' author Leander Kahney
Journalist Leander Kahney's new biography, "Tim Cook: The Genius Who Took Apple to the Next Level," explores Cook's ascendancy to CEO of the world's most valuable company, a journey undertaken in the shadow of visionary co-founder Steve Jobs. The author discusses his research and findings in this interview with AppleInsider.
Kahney's book is the first to present a clear and comprehensive look at Cook's time at Apple, from Jobs' recruitment of the young operations executive to the challenges he faced — and faces — as CEO. The biography is current to early 2018.
The following Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.
AI: Why is writing about Tim Cook at this point in his career important?
LK: When he took over, the narrative was that "Apple is doomed," that Apple is screwed without Steve Jobs, that Apple would become like Microsoft when Steve Ballmer took over. It would be a slow decline and the company will be over. And that narrative persists today, I mean look at the reaction to this book and everyone saying the same thing, "This guy's overrated, he's ruining Apple, he should resign." But if you look at a lot of objective measures, everything from the stock price to the value of the company to the number of products they're selling to things like the Apple Watch.
So when I was looking at it, I was thinking about all these different things he's done and I'm like, you know, he's doing a much better job than people give him credit for. And then when I started to dig into it and I discovered these six values that he's imparting onto the company, he's not just following Steve Jobs' blueprint. He's transforming Apple in the way that he thinks it should be transformed.
AI: You mention Cook has six core values — accessibility; education; environment; inclusion and diversity; privacy and security; and supplier responsibility — that are known throughout the company. When did you first become aware of those and what effect do they have on Apple?
LK: The funny thing is they articulated them after I found out about them, or rather they started to publicize them. I found out about them when I was interviewing (vice president of environment, policy and social initiatives) Lisa Jackson, the PR person that was sitting in on the meeting said, "This is one of Tim's six core values that he talks about internally."I hadn't heard any other mention of them. I think it was kind of the stuff that Tim had in his notebook, on the back of a napkin. The kind of things that he had been, over the last few years, instinctively, intuitively pushing. The things that were important to him because of his supply chain background and because of his love of nature and the outdoors.
The first thing he said to Lisa Jackson when he hired her, she said, "What's my job?" and Cook said, "That's to leave the world a better place than you found it." And it sounds kind of like one of those motivational posters, but you know I think it definitely informs the way that he runs the company. I think he's just psyched to be in charge of the world's biggest company, these enormous resources and he's able to use those to make a dent in the universe. That dent is to leave things better than you found it. And I think he's sincere and I think he's been effective.
AI: The first thing that popped out when reading the book was that Cook, when ultimately promoted to chief operating officer, he was in charge of as many as 40,000 workers. Would you say that his impact on the culture of that group helped ease his transition into the role of CEO?
LK: I think that he's sort of been — around the time he became the COO — I think he also became in a lot of ways the de facto CEO around that time. Jobs was sick for the first time just shortly after that and so [Cook] became the interim CEO. From what I could tell, Cook was kind of running more and more, he was the deputy, the right-hand man. And Jobs was spending more and more time doing the things that he enjoyed, which was mainly hanging out in the industrial design studio.
AI: Do you think this time as "interim CEO" helped inure the other executives and everyone below them to the idea of Cook as CEO?
LK: Maybe, although it's not a hundred percent clear, but it looked to me like Jobs had had him pegged as potentially a CEO going way back, even to the early 2000s. In conversations with Horace Dediu, the analyst, he's talking about how Jobs is the only generalist at Apple. Everyone at Apple is a specialist, you know, they all specialize in something and people don't hop around jobs, except for Steve Jobs. He's the only person that didn't have a clear speciality, he was like a jack of all trades. And the only other person who had that role was Tim Cook. Cook was brought on as an operations specialist and he fixed up the supply chain and then he was made head of sales and he was head of the Macintosh division, you know, then he was made COO. So he was kind of jumping around different jobs in the same way that Steve Jobs was doing.
So, there's been no reporting that I came across about these issues, but it seems to me from the outside that it looked like he was grooming him to take over, even really early on.
AI: And now that Cook's in charge, do you see him following that same pattern with any other executives? COO Jeff Williams is now in charge of Watch, so he's kind of moved away from what would be considered his normal purview.
LK: Well, you know, I hadn't thought about it to be honest, but now that you mention it, yeah. It does sound like Jeff Williams is becoming the new Tim Cook.
AI: The book was written across 2018. Has anything changed since then? For example, the rare guidance revision in January, do you think that's a blip or indicative of something more systemic as far as Cook's leadership is concerned?
LK: I think it's external factors. I think the smartphone market has matured. That explosive growth is behind us now, so [it impacts] everyone, not just Apple. The last quarter, the dip in iPhone sales was thanks to slowing sales in China. I don't think it's systemic, I don't think it's anything going on at Apple.
From what I can tell, there's some really promising stuff going on inside the company. This whole stuff with transforming the Mac to run on ARM chips and Marzipan apps, that kind of looks like classic Apple.
I don't see any signs. You know, people complain about the MacBook keyboards and said, "Steve Jobs would never let happen." It is embarrassing and they have struggled with that, but there were problems under Jobs too. There were lots of problems. For most of his career people denigrated Jobs just as badly as they denigrate Tim Cook now. It was only toward the end of his career, like when iPhone became a bonafide hit, that perception started to change.
Most people said he was a slick marketer, he had no idea about hardware, he had no idea about technology. It was all, "[Apple co-founder Steve] Wozniak, Wozniak was the real genius." People said a lot of mean things about Steve Jobs and then the last couple of years of his life, when the iPhone...look at the iPod, people didn't even give him credit for the iPod. [They said] iPod was a one-off, a lucky break and it wasn't until the iPhone started taking off. Remember the reaction initially to that as well? People said oh the price, it was a toy, it didn't have a keyboard, it would never take off, BlackBerry would eat its lunch. You see the same patterns repeat themselves. But I don't think that they're struggling. To me it seems like they've got a very bright product road map and a bright future.
AI: What was a key takeaway about Tim Cook that you learned through the course of researching this book that surprised you or has it all been out there and you just collected it?
LK: Well that's a funny thing. You know, like you said, it is kind of out there. I follow Apple as closely as anybody, but I was surprised by those six core values and how they have informed the way that he's run a company. And even though a lot of this stuff was like, he hired Lisa Jackson, they announced they were going a hundred percent renewable. You know, I saw the public announcements, but it wasn't until I sort of dug into it that I put the dots together. When I started to get into and looked at these six values, that was what surprised me. The extent to which he is remaking Apple according to those six values and what a big impact it's having.
AI: Anything else that sticks out?
LK: Well, you know, one of the questions that people ask me about, what is the difference between Jobs and Cook. This is kind of surprising too and kind of took me a while to sort of figure out and put together. Jobs was really competitive and he really valued competition internally. You can go all the way back to the original Macintosh, and the Mac, they had them in a separate building and they had a pirate's flag, and they were the geniuses and everyone else in the company was a bozo. It was very antagonistic and he did the same thing with the iPhone development, he had Tony Fadell competing against Scott Forstall internally to try to see who could come up with the best ideas for making a cell phone. They worked in silos, everyone was very secretive.
Jobs had all these edicts; they had to be secretive, they couldn't talk to each other, they all have to compete with each other. And the staff is kind of going behind his back to protect him from his own worst instincts and they would be secretly collaborating, secretly talking to each other, secretly doing things like adding memory chips to the hardware.
Cook is more collaborative. Remember when they fired Forstall? They put out that press release, and it was kind of like, "We're make some changes here at Apple, we're making everything more collaborative. Jony Ive's got more responsibilities." They mentioned all this stuff and said, "Oh, by the way we fired Scott Forstall." Looking back on that, I think it was kind of like Tim Cook's sort of "Think Different" moment.
It was like a public declaration of how he was going to manage Apple. Collaboration, cross fertilization are the coin of the realm and this is how he wants to run the company. And then you look at the spaceship campus, I mentioned this in the book, that the campus was sort of designed — probably not by Jobs — to try to do that, to to get more people to collaborate, to talk, not to be locked in their offices, but to get out and to spread ideas around the company. Those ideas are sort of writ large in architecture.
Portfolio is offering 48 copies of Leander Kahney's Tim Cook: The Genius Who Took Apple to the Next Level to AppleInsider readers, who can sign up for the giveaway below. Entries will be accepted through April 19 and winners will be chosen at random and announced on April 20.
Entering the giveaway is quick and easy. Simply subscribe to our YouTube channel or download our app using the widget below. You can also gain additional entries by following us on Instagram to view exclusive photos from Apple events. The entry period for this giveaway ends at 11:59 p.m. Pacific on April 19, and the winners will be announced here on April 20. Definitely check back to see if you've won. No purchase is necessary to enter and the sweepstakes is open to U.S. residents aged 18 years and older. Please note, contest entries will be verified upon selecting the winners.