Tim Cook on being CEO

September 11, 2016

Tim Cook on being CEO

Fall is here, or at least the end of summer. I have to get back into posting on my blog. So here I am on a sunny Sunday before I dive into some work before Monday morning arrives.

I wanted to post about this fantastic interview I came across in the Washington Post in August. It is an interview with Apple CEO Tim Cook and it is very in-depth. There were so many good quotes in it that I am reeling after reading it for the second time. The occasion of the interview was Apple selling its billionth iPhone. Billionth! And the timing coincided with the five year anniversary of Tim Cook taking over the reins from Steve Jobs.

Several themes that I have been watching over the years surface in this interview and I was excited to hear his point of view – the media scrutiny, the role of the CEO today, CEO activism, and CEO engagement. Our research on what drives CEO reputation today — humility — aptly describes how Tim Cook comes across in the interview. Plus Cook reinforces something I’ve heard over and over about what it is like to be named CEO. He says, “It’s sort of a lonely job. The adage that it’s lonely — the CEO job is lonely — is accurate in a lot of ways. I’m not looking for any sympathy. You have to recognize that you have blind spots. We all do.” Here are some of the questions and answers that I want to save and will be using in presentations we do on CEO reputation drivers and first 100 days of new CEOs.

You’ve said you don’t want to be a traditional CEO. What do you mean by that?

I think of a traditional CEO as being divorced from customers. A lot of consumer company CEOs — they’re not really interacting with consumers. I also think that the traditional CEO believes his or her job is the profit and loss, is the revenue statement, the income and expense, the balance sheet. Those are important, but I don’t think they’re all that’s important. There’s an incredible responsibility to the employees of the company, to the communities and the countries that the company operates in, to people who assemble its products, to developers, to the whole ecosystem of the company. And so I have a maybe nontraditional view there. I get criticized for it some, I recognize. If you care about long-term shareholder return, all of these other things are really critical.

What did you think you knew about leading Apple that turned out to be wrong?

There’s nothing like sitting in the chair, so to speak. I was reminded that customers have a really deep love for the company. I started just getting an avalanche of customer mail. I don’t mean complaints. Email. Positive. Negative. Points of view. Not the ‘hey, this broke, I’m mad.’ Largely not that kind of stuff. Things much deeper than that. Moved by how they were treated in a store. Lots of people have written me about FaceTime and how they could be near their mother’s or father’s bedside before they died only because of it.

But what about in terms of running the company?

I learned that the scrutiny was much higher than I thought. Media interest and scrutiny — social networking was taking off at that time — and so a lot of the “love,” so to speak, and interest from customers, I think transfers to media interest as well. And so there’s a lot of visibility on the company. We can do very few things without it being reported somewhere.

You and Alan Greenspan or Janet Yellen would probably have a lot to talk about. It seems like every word you say is scrutinized. How do you get used to that?

You don’t. You’re both praised and criticized, and the extremes are wide — very wide. And that can happen all in a day. You build up — my skin got materially thicker after August 2011. And I don’t mean in a bad way. I don’t mean that I’m callous and don’t care. I think I’m a bit better today about compartmentalizing things and not taking everything so personally. That was just downright shocking to me, honestly. I thought the visibility went with Steve, not the company. And so I thought with a different CEO, with me, that would instantly change. It didn’t.

You’ve been more outspoken on social issues than any other CEO of a company your size. Do you think companies have a responsibility to publicly take on such issues as civil rights and climate change?

I think everybody has to make their own decision about it. Maybe there are compelling reasons why some people want to be silent. I think for us, though — for a company that’s all about empowering people through our products, and being a collection of people whose goal in life is to change the world for the better — it doesn’t sit right with me that you have that kind of focus, but you’re not making sure your carbon footprint isn’t poisoning the place. Or that you’re not evangelizing moving human rights forward. I think every generation has the responsibility to enlarge the meaning of human rights. I do view that a CEO today of Apple should participate in the national discussion on these type of issues.

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Leslie Gaines-Ross
Leslie Gaines-Ross

As Weber Shandwick’s Chief Reputation Strategist, I focus on the ever changing world of reputation. For the past 25 years, I have relentlessly observed, researched and commented on the rise and fall of corporate and CEO reputations.

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