Tim Cook's speech on Sunday to graduates of George Washington University sounded in many ways like the standard fare of commencement season. He told graduates to find their "North Star." He quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. He told them a story to illustrate how much has changed since he was a kid (his childhood Alabama textbooks still said the Civil War was about states' rights).
Yet his primary message was notable for something else: how much it echoed what millennials say they want in a job, and what companies are increasingly trying to convince employees they can provide. "There is opportunity to do work that’s infused with moral purpose," Cook told graduates on the National Mall. "You don’t have to choose between doing good and doing well. It’s a false choice, today, more than ever."
Cook said that, early on, "I always figured that work was work and values had their place," noting that "I thought I had to do that on my own time. Not in the office." Cook's challenge to the class of 2015 was "to find work that pays the rent, puts food on the table, and lets you do what is right and good and just."
More companies today, seeing survey after survey claiming that millennials want meaningful jobs, are trying to tap into this sentiment. Yet for many mega CEOs, it can come off as risky and inauthentic to talk about work having a moral purpose.
At times it can seem overreaching, especially if companies try to paint pedestrian careers as having grand higher callings. In a Wall Street Journal story published earlier this year, for instance, a Yale researcher noted that some corporate campaigns about moral purpose can backfire among employees: For those who don't feel their job has a larger impact, the campaigns only underscore that discrepancy.
Cook, however, is better poised than most CEOs to promote the idea of work having meaning. And not just for the Apple product reasons he cited in the speech — such as that there are "people who witness injustice and want to expose it, and now they can because they have a camera in their pocket all the time."
As the CEO of the world's largest company and most valuable brand, Cook has used his powerful platform to speak openly about his own sexuality and about gay rights. He has critiqued his home state's record on racial equality, and spoken out on issues such as immigration reform. He has promised to give away his wealth and has begun matching employee charitable contributions.
Recently, Apple said it would expand its renewable energy goals to cover what's used by its supply chain, as well as launch an initiative to protect up to one million acres of forests. And he's told climate change skeptics who've questioned his investments in renewable energy to sell their shares."If you want me to make decisions that have a clear R.O.I., then you should get out of the stock, just to be plain and simple," he said at a shareholder meeting last year.
Some critics have questioned why Cook speaks out on social issues at home not abroad, for example, especially given that the company has faced scrutiny about things such as its labor practices over the years. Cook recognized in his speech there could be cynics in the audience. ("I suspect some of you aren't buying this," he said, "I won't take it personally.")
Still, there are few CEOs leading giant companies today who could promote the meshing of work and purpose with quite as much impact.