“Don’t wonder what I would do, do the right thing,” Steve Jobs told Tim Cook before handing him the Apple post, according to an article by The Wall Street Journal (WSJ). So what difference is there between “doing the right thing” for someone who died as a legend of “thinking differently” and for a “boring” industrial engineer from the operations area? Considering that both have proven to be extremely successful leaders, how do their leadership styles differ? Let’s look at some of those differences.
The first difference between the two is their family and professional origin. Jobs’ biological parents could not support him, so they gave him up for adoption a few days after he was born -before he named him- to the couple formed by Clara and Paul Jobs. The only condition they made before delivering the baby was that they had to send him to college.
Everything seems to indicate that Steve’s passion for machines comes from his father, who was a mechanic, and who taught him to assemble and disassemble electronic instruments. But Steve also had a penchant for the arts, according to Walter Isaacson – the author of one of his biographies – he wrote poetry and played the guitar. Years later, his love for the artistic was to be reflected in his products, for many authentic minimalist works of art. Despite this vocational ambiguity, with great effort to fulfill his promise, Clara and Paul forced him to go to college. The story of Steve when he dropped out of college and went to take calligraphy classes is famous. As he recounted in the memorable speech at Stanford, he did it because it seemed more fun and he did not want to waste the money his parents had saved so hard. Soon after, he met Steve Wozniak and together they changed history.
Tim Cook’s life is linear and quite different from Jobs’s. He graduated in Industrial Engineering and earned an MBA from Duke University. He always worked in the operations and sourcing areas, in companies like IBM and Compaq. But something changed for that conservative engineer the day he met who was to become his mentor. In his own words: “In less than five minutes of my first interview with Steve (Jobs), I wanted to throw caution and logic to the wind and join Apple.” This is how he became Jobs’s operating arm, without which his dreams would have been impossible to fulfill.
Disruption vs. improvements
While Jobs orchestrated great leaps of innovation by introducing products that altered the rules of the industry game, Cook made Apple more in line with his profile as a man of operations. Following the advice of his predecessor, he maintained qualities such as realism, caution, collaboration, and efficiency, and turned them over to the organization. While Jobs sought to generate novelties, Cook has preferred to focus on fewer products to improve them to perfection.
During the Cook years, the company did not launch disruptive products as in the previous era, but instead focused on improving its accessories. Thus were born the Apple Watch, the AirPods, and services such as Apple Music and Apple TV. The fruits of this business strategy are in sight: the company’s watch outsold any other, and AirPods were more than half of the headphones sold in the world in 2019. For a company whose identity was marked by the breakdown of paradigms, the incremental improvement of the products meant a true revolution.
Link with customers
One of the most striking differences between the two is the relationship of each with the company’s clients. Jobs quoted Henry Ford when he said that if he had asked customers what they wanted, they would have asked him for faster horses. Along the same lines, Steve argued: “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I don’t trust market research. Our job is to read things that aren’t on the page yet.” Cook is much less arrogant, so he doesn’t hesitate to mingle with customers at any Apple Store and ask them about their experience. His collaborators define him as “a humble workaholic with a unique commitment to Apple.”
Love to detail
On a note in The TelegraphRichard Branson – the founder of the Virgin Group – said: “Steve Jobs’s leadership style was autocratic; he had a meticulous eye for detail, and he surrounded himself with like-minded people who followed his guidance.” The personality of Jobs – who was known for his outbursts of rage – is contrasted with the democratic, participatory and calming style of his successor. Singer Bono defined Tim as a “Zen master”. Despite his relaxed ways, it is better to be well prepared when working with him, his precision is so extreme that there are cases of people who were crying from a meeting, and junior middle managers are advised not to open their mouths.
The same WSJ note tells of an episode that marks Cook’s level of demand and attention to detail. He nearly lost his temper when 25 computers were mistakenly shipped to South Korea and destined for Japan. Considering that the company ships 200 million IPhones per year, it would not seem like a very big failure. However, as one of his collaborators recalled, in front of the episode he said: “We are losing our commitment to excellence.”
Tim Cook belongs to one of the historically worst hit minorities. In an interview he gave to the magazine Business Week In 2014, he made it public that he was gay. Since then, he has reinforced the company’s commitment to human rights, the environment, education and the defense of privacy. The latter caused strong friction with the governments of the United States and China. He has also maintained that he is personally committed to increasing women and black people in the highest positions of company leadership. The lack of that diversity is also part of Jobs’ legacy.
The triumph of the method
When Steve Jobs died, many, from Wall Street investors to his parishioners, thought he would take Apple to the grave with him. After almost a decade, the results show otherwise. With your strategy, Cook managed to multiply the company’s valuation several times until it became the highest value in the world. Steve had the vision to anticipate the future needs of his creation: to keep growing, it was time to replace magic with method. His disciple did not disappoint him and did the right thing.
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