Delivering on the Big Promise: a Tim Cook Exegesis

The Bloomberg Businessweek interview with Apple CEO Tim Cook  is a fascinating read. From a communication professional’s standpoint, it’s an astounding feat of being on-message.
There is certainly a lot of exegesis to be done from this article (and I will do some here), but on the whole, it’s just about the exemplar of how to talk in depth and in detail about an organization without giving anything away or revealing anything you don’t want revealed. Tech journos and Apple devotees will try and read between the lines, but Cook’s answers are often much like Apple’s products at their best: There are no lines between which one could read. They are, as it were, seamless.

When he does reveal things, it’s utterly intentional, and delivered in precisely the way he wants you to hear it. Again, that’s a lot like how Apple’s products and software work when at their best.

I want to focus on two answers he gives early in the piece, which are notable not just for what they say, but for how they bear in his later answers.

First, Cook addresses how things under his rule have changed, and he very deliberately (I think) seeds us with this (emphasis mine):

In creating these great products we focus on enriching people’s lives—a higher cause for the product. These are the macro things that drive the company. They haven’t changed. They’re not changing. I will not witness or permit those changes because that’s what makes the company so special.

He knows what the tough questions will be about: 1) Foxconn and working conditions in Apple’s manufacturing and 2) the ouster of Scott Forstall, the guy who headed up iOS (and to a lesser extent the simultaneous ouster of retail chief John Browett). So he gives what is essentially the “Apple thesis,” make the best, most life-enriching products possible, and declare that he will do whatever he must to maintain that as their soul focus. If you want to know why he fired those guys and why he’s doing what he’s doing with manufacturing, that’s what will drive his decisions. What he later says about why he decided to execute that whole executive shakeup is an elaboration on this point, this principle. Anyway, the next paragraph:

There are lots of little things that change, and there will be lots of little things that change over the next year and the years thereafter. We decided being more transparent about some things is great—not that we were not transparent at all before, but we’ve stepped it up in places where we think we can make a bigger difference, where we want people to copy us. So there are things that are different, but the most important thing by far is, the fiber of the place is the same.

This is almost all about Foxconn. The conversation in the interview veers temporarily into Cook’s policy of matching charitable giving by employees, but really we’re talking about dealing with the lives of the hundreds of thousands of human beings who make his stuff.

And here’s why what Cook says here is important. Think back to the death of Steve Jobs, and how I and others lamented not just the loss of the Guy Who Was Apple, but the ethos that he represented, of this relentless, maniacal drive to improve and simplify whatever the product or process in question was. What would happen to that?

Allow me to bring Mike Daisey back into this. His New York Times op-ed, following Jobs’ death, hit the nail on the head. Wrote Daisey:

Mr. Jobs’s magic has its costs. We can admire the design perfection and business acumen while acknowledging the truth: with Apple’s immense resources at his command he could have revolutionized the industry to make devices more humanely and more openly, and chose not to. If we view him unsparingly, without nostalgia, we would see a great man whose genius in design, showmanship and stewardship of the tech world will not be seen again in our lifetime. We would also see a man who in the end failed to “think different,” in the deepest way, about the human needs of both his users and his workers.

It’s a high bar, but Mr. Jobs always believed passionately in brutal honesty, and the truth is rarely kind. With his death, the serious work to do the things he has failed to do will fall to all of us: the rebels, the misfits, the crazy ones who think they can change the world.

And now, over a year later, Tim Cook:

Our transparency in supplier responsibility is an example of recognizing that the more transparent we are, the bigger difference we would make. We want to be as innovative with supply responsibility as we are with our products. That’s a high bar. The more transparent we are, the more it’s in the public space. The more it’s in the public space, the more other companies will decide to do something similar. And the more everybody does it, the better everything gets.

While in the previous post I just argued what a big deal shifting a Mac line over to U.S.-based manufacturing is, I think this is bigger. This is not just a CEO caving to a PR headache about how he ignores the suffering of distant foreign workers. Cook is saying that he is making the improvement in this situation, and the improvement of his ability to monitor this situation, a focus of Apple’s enormous innovative powers.

If he’s sincere, he is beginning to deliver on Daisey’s wish. It’s a big if, but man, what an if.

2 thoughts on “Delivering on the Big Promise: a Tim Cook Exegesis”

  1. Mike Daisey severely exaggerated and in some cases made up a lot of details in his monologue. It’s a sad case of losing sight of the bigger picture with regards to something you care about.

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  2. “Transparent”???
    Apple may be the most secretive consumer-products corporation in the world. Their obsession with “confidentiality” and compartmentalization – including an internal security force backed with continuous threats of litigation and prosecution – is legendary, even within an industry dominated by compulsive control freaks. (See Adam Lashinsky’s Inside Apple: How America’s Most Admired–and Secretive–Company Really Works for the grim details.)

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