Apple’s Tim Cook on creativity and changing your mind


(KIMIHIRO HOSHINO/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
December 6, 2012

On Wednesday, Apple made headlines for its biggest stock drop in four years, as the company’s shares fell more than 6 percent amid fears about competition in the tablet market. On Thursday, the company was back in the news again, this time for two new interviews with CEO Tim Cook—one a lengthy interview with Bloomberg BusinessWeek editor Josh Tyrangiel and the other apparently his first televised sit-down with NBC’s Brian Williams—that revealed Apple would manufacture a line of Macs in the United States next year.

The manufacturing is big news, of course. Cook told Tyrangiel that “I do feel [CEOs] have a responsibility to create jobs,” just not necessarily jobs as Apple employees. And few business leaders can make that claim as well as Apple does, given the ecosystem of jobs the company has helped to spawn through suppliers, developers and accessory makers. While it’s not clear which line of products Apple will make in America, Cook said he intends to do more than just “assemble” the products here, and will invest $100 million in the effort.

But even if the biggest revelation out of the interviews is the manufacturing news, Cook also revealed a few telling new insights about how he leads Apple. Whether or not they help him navigate a tricky patch for the company’s share price, they do give us a better glimpse of the man running the world’s biggest company by market value.

First, he offers what is perhaps the best definition of “creativity” I have ever heard: “Creativity is not a process, right?” he tells Tyrangiel. “It’s people who care enough to keep thinking about something until they find the simplest way to do it.” In other words, he’s implying that a leader’s job is to establish a culture where people will care that much about their work, rather than to try to build some kind of innovation “process.” In fact, he has sharp words for anyone who tries to do the latter: “A lot of companies have innovation departments, and this is always a sign that something is wrong when you have a VP of innovation or something. You know, put a for-sale sign on the door.”

In addition, he says that he thinks “maybe the most important thing” to prevent, as CEO, is becoming insular. This is easy for the CEO of Apple to say, of course, given the hundreds if not thousands of direct emails he gets from customers, as well as the retail stores that give him an opportunity to interact with consumers directly. Not every business leader has that advantage, and Cook recognizes as much. But it’s a reminder that leaders have to find a way to get feedback in an unfiltered way, fostering relationships with customers, allowing for direct access to their inboxes, and spending plenty of time in the field interacting with employees or customers.

Finally, Cook shared with both Williams and Tyrangiel the wisdom he received from Jobs before his death, that he should never look up as CEO and ask what Steve would have done, but instead to “just do what’s right.” An admirable statement from a company founder, of course, and one that seems to already be having an impact as Cook charts his own path on certain decisions—from offering matching philanthropy donations to recently shaking up the company’s management staff.

But what he goes on to say about Jobs in the BusinessWeek Q&A is just as interesting. We like to think of great innovators and great leaders as steadfast and principled in their beliefs, the type of people who rarely waver on their views. Jobs was just the opposite, Cook said: “So many people, particularly, I think, CEOs and top executives, they get so planted in their old ideas, and they refuse or don’t have the courage to admit that they’re now wrong. Maybe the most underappreciated thing about Steve was that he had the courage to change his mind. It’s a talent.”

Jena McGregor is a columnist for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

More from On Leadership:

The coaching carousel in college football

Moral values and the fiscal cliff

Great leadership books in 2012

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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