The Patient and Telling Vocabulary of Apple CEO Tim Cook
Tim Cook had the toughest act to follow in all of Silicon Valley; he stepped into a corner office at Apple that was previously occupied by an industry legend. He doesn't speak publicly often, but Cook's favorite words and phrases -- many of which were heard during this week's Goldman Sachs tech conference -- reveal a lot about the man, his company's challenges, and his leadership skills.
Feb 14, 2013 5:00 AM PT
Apple CEO Tim Cook is growing on me.
His reputation comes from being an operational genius, a guy who could manage supply chains and factories around the world, and connect them with suppliers and distributors and all sorts of trucks, boats, planes and trains to get products into the hands of customers. He's been effective. Millions upon millions of iPhones, iPods, and iPads have moved thousands of miles to get into the hands of customers on launch days.
What about Tim Cook the leader? Since we can't peek into the halls of Cupertino and get a real day-to-day glimpse of Cook in action, we're left with four quarterly conference calls with financial analysts, and a few interviews here and there. The most recent was an interview at the Goldman Sachs Technology and Internet Conference, which Apple streamed live from its investor web pages.
What Does Tim Cook Really Say?
The guy doesn't pull out wild words. He uses small words and speaks in phrases. He repeats himself often. The words he chooses don't make anyone think that he's a particularly imaginative or creative guy -- at least not in a traditional sense. Not in a Steve Jobs sense. Yet Cook manages to exude skill, discipline, and -- most important -- joy.
It's a hard word to imagine when you connect it to Tim Cook. Thoughtful? Sure. Conscientious? You bet. Do a search online for Tim Cook photos and I doubt joy, or even delight, is a word that will come to your mind.
I believe, however, that he finds delight in his job and in his position at Apple. I think that's important. I think that's critical to Apple's health. Cook is becoming something far more than an operational genius. To get here with me, though, you'll have to read between the lines. You'll have to respect that Cook isn't going to reveal a new inexpensive iPhone with a big screen. The answers are in some of the phrases, words, and messages that actually mean something about the health and vision of Apple -- not the stock price, but the foundation of Apple.
Patience Patience Patience
I have a newfound respect for Cook's patience. I've been listening to analysts pose the same old questions again and again, and if these guys are supposed to be Apple experts, it saddens me to hear them ask the wrong questions.
Cook has patience and repeats his answers, but he's not a monotone guy. He doesn't try to dress up his personality beyond what he is, but he has inflection, and he's able to crack a dry joke now and again. An amazing metaphor? Not so much. A surprising word choice? Never. He does say, however, what surprises him. He connects his words to how he feels about something, and more importantly, he evokes the feelings and mission behind Apple.
It seems as if he speaks the truth. It seems like the guy does not lie. Steve Jobs? Well, we always wanted to hear what he had to say, what he was passionate about, but we were usually pretty sure some elements of the truth were being bent, whether he believed it or not.
Consider this: Cook walked into his position as one of the most beloved and feared CEOs in the industry was dying. Talk about intense focus, pressure and expectations.
Consider how Wall Street has beat up Apple stock lately based mostly on rumor and innuendo, despite Apple delivering an astounding financial quarter. Despite all this, Cook doesn't get defensive. He doesn't prop up his reputation by highlighting his achievements, and he rarely outright disses his competition -- especially not in a way designed to boost his ego.
If the guy happens to say the word "I," it often enough comes near the word "privilege," where he's expressing his thanks for having an opportunity to produce world-changing products.
Speaking of products, what else does Tim Cook not say? Even though he's talking to investors, who tend to have their own language and some twisted views of the world, he doesn't talk about being proud of producing "profitable" products. Apple isn't proud because the iPhone has a high profit margin. That is not a bragging point; it's just a point. I've heard more than a few CEOs and CFOs get all jazzed up about their profit margins, as if that is the measurement of their success.
This is not Apple. A great profit margin is always the result of what Apple cares about. It's a side effect of a broader vision.
No Depression-Era Mentality
Here's an example from the Goldman Sachs interview, in response to Apple's cash hoard:
"Apple doesn't have a Depression-era mentality. Apple makes bold and ambitious bets on products, and we're conservative financially."
The "Depression-era mentality" was a phrase repeated due to the interviewer's question, and the rest of this sentence speaks volumes about Apple: Apple will make bold and ambitious bets on products. Apple will find the next big thing. To get there, they won't spend money like crazy. Money is not the answer. It's a tool and a result. Nice. Personally, I wish I could replicate this notion in my own household.
Meanwhile, there's some brouhaha over Apple reducing its cash on hand and returning it to investors, and Cook addressed that as being important to Apple. Better yet, he was able to crack a dry joke: "Now, we do have some cash."
Then he pointed out that Apple is incredibly privileged to be in a position to return billions of dollars to its shareholders. Exactly. There are a lot of big tech companies that perform odd acrobatic moves and employ dark-suited ninjas to transform their balance sheets into something that looks like success. While it must be baffling to get hammered on this topic, Cook says Apple will be "deliberate and thoughtful" about reducing the level of cash.
In a similar vein, Cook was asked about a proxy lawsuit, which he dismissed as a silly sideshow. He said that Apple believes in it, but they aren't going to campaign for it. "You're not going to see a 'Yes on 2' sign in my front yard," he joked. More importantly, he said, "I believe it's the right thing for shareholders to have the right on this particular topic, I encourage others to vote for it, but it's not something we're going to spend cycles on."
Focus. I like that.
Apple buys a half-dozen or so smaller companies each year, but has not acquired anything large, despite having well over a $100 billion in cash to use. Why? Tim Cook's answer cuts to the heart of Apple: "We're disciplined and thoughtful and we don't feel pressure to just go out and acquire revenue."
Apple doesn't even try to "acquire revenue." This is amazing. So many companies look to acquisitions as part of their "growth strategy." Heck, I don't even think that Apple has a "growth strategy."
So what do Apple's strategies involve?
"We want to make great products, and that's what we're about. And so if a large company could help us do that even better, than that would be of interest. But again, deliberate, thoughtful is our mantra. The cash is not burning a hole in our pocket."
Products and Innovation
Everyone who watched Steve Jobs knew that he was insanely passionate about products. You could see it in his eyes. Cook's eyes are a little less revealing, and while his words are not the kinds of words that lead a company to war, they come back again and again to Apple's core values. These statements become infused in all of Apple's employees -- even the people working around the world in Apple's Retail Stores:
"Innovation is so deeply embedded in Apple's culture -- the boldness, the ambition, the belief that there aren't limits, the desire among our people to not just make good products but make the very best products in the world ... it's as strong as ever. It's deeply embedded, it's in the values, it's in the DNA of the company," Cook said. "And so I feel fantastic about it."
Customer + Experience
Two words that show up a lot with Apple: "customers" and their "experience."
Apple focuses on the customer experience. When Apple talks about this, it's clear that Apple doesn't see market share as a prize or a goal. Analysts keep looking at marketshare and implying that Apple should change its business, change its DNA, should create products to gain market share.
I don't think Apple looks at market share as a goal at all. Of domination? The Goldman Sachs interviewer asked about marketshare limits for Apple, one of the largest companies in the world. Cook said "limits" isn't in Apple's vocabulary. "In all seriousness, the people I work with don't view that there are limits, and it's because of that that Apple has been able to do so many things for so many years, and done things that people didn't know they ever wanted, and now can't live without. And so, we don't really think of the world as limits."
Along with the notion of more marketshare is the idea that Apple has to create a low-cost iPhone, and the interviewer asked about it. Cook said, "It's important to understand . . . our North Star is great products. When everyone comes to work every day and leaves work, they're thinking about that, front and center. We wouldn't do anything that we consider not a great product, it's just not in us to do it, it's not why we're on this Earth. There are other companies that do that -- that's just not who we are."
What's key here is that Cook aligns Apple's direction with the North Star, with a clear and unchanging direction. He invokes "us," that all Apple employees feel this way. And he likens it to something bigger, "why we're on this Earth." Coming from a CEO who doesn't seem to lie to tell investors what they want to hear, this is important stuff for Apple employees and those who seek to understand Apple.
Apple's Clear Purpose
To enhance the picture of that experience, Cook uses phrases like "fabulous experience" and "sweat every detail." He shifts back to repetition, noting that there's only one thing Apple won't do (at least on purpose) ,and that is to make a "crappy" product.
"We're going to make a great product -- that's the only religion that we have. We must do something great, something bold, something ambitious," Cook said. "We want the customer to be the center of it. We want to enrich people's lives."
This is the kind of language Cook uses. These are his word choices. That consumer-oriented vision leaks out in other ways, too. He said, "There are over 300,000 apps that have been custom-made to take advantage of the big, beautiful canvas that iPad has. The other guys have a few hundred." In this sentence, Cook is addressing the app ecosystem from a competitive point of view, and yet brings it back to a value proposition of the iPad -- the big, beautiful canvas. Implicitly, a canvas for creativity.
You either talk this way because you've been hounded and trained mercilessly by a marketing team, or more likely, because the love of the product really is your North Star.
The CEO phrases that make me gag? Cook uses very few of them. In fact, when he was talking about the halo effect of the Apple experience, where one good purchase experience leads to another and another, he said, "All of these things have synergies and stuff."
The practiced business phrases don't seem to be encoded onto Cook's tongue.
Welcome Into Our Stores
When Cook talks about Apple Retail Stores, he recognizes that these are the new face of Apple. And more importantly, when he drops statistics like the fact that 120 million people entered Apple Stores in the last quarter, he says Apple "welcomed" them into their stores. There's a fundamental way of thinking here expressed through Cook's word choices that I like.
Other words that Cook likes to use express a feeling of privilege. He acts like he knows he's lucky to have the job and the responsibility he does. He likens Apple's products, supply chain and environmental efforts as "contributions" to the world. He's proud that Apple has the largest private solar farm ever for running its data centers on renewable energy. He says he's "incredibly happy" that "we're" changing people's lives, and that Apple doesn't care if people are lobbing grenades from the sidelines.
Cook says, "I'm really proud over all these things, and I don't mean to gush, but it's how I feel. And, you know, it's both the privilege of a lifetime, and humbling to work with the people I get to work with."
When I contrast that sentiment with the bragging bravado of other CEOs I've heard over the years, I appreciate Cook more and more. Of course, when he answers questions about future product direction with phrases like "releases our magic," I start becoming a fan. He said, "I'm not going to comment about what we're going to do in the future because that releases our magic -- and I'm not going to do that."