Apple CEO Tim Cook on laptop screen

Book review: ‘Tim Cook: The Genius Who Took Apple to the Next Level’

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Tim Cook is no Steve Jobs, but this might have been exactly what Apple needed when he took charge, according to a new biography that draws a picture of a different kind of visionary.

What Steve Jobs was to the world of product design, Tim Cook could soon be remembered for in terms of his achievements in corporate environmental and diversity design. This is just one of many conclusions readers might come away with from Leander Kahney’s new biography, ‘Tim Cook: The Genius Who Took Apple to the Next Level’ (Penguin Business, £14.99, ISBN 9780241348208).

The book’s conclusion, that "he [Tim Cook] made Apple a better company and the world a better place," might create an ostentatious impression. However, Kahney - who has written other books about Apple and is best known for his role as editor and publisher of a popular Apple-centric blog – knows only too well how to not fall into a trap of overstatement and generalisation.

The author seeks to justify his claim with a series of striking anecdotes illustrating Cook’s character. In Kahney’s eyes, Cook is much more than just a CEO who thought a bit harder about how to create a welcoming and efficient corporate culture that’s aware of both environmental and privacy issues. He is presented as a messianic figure whose work on change and acceptance provides an example for other Fortune 500 companies struggling to do the right thing.

Kahney’s strong point is digging out quotes that draw the reader in and help them understand Cook as a human being, rather than a reserved and cold-blooded decision maker. Cook is a team player. He is humble and patient. The book draws on hundreds of well researched statements –most from secondary sources – and many that are expected to become relevant in the future, should Cook be judged for his foresight after his tenure.

The quintessence of the author’s writing – and a set of cleverly composed headlines – is that he truly believes in Cook as a new and healthier breed of 21st-century technology CEO. Engineering and tech bosses of the world should take note of the lessons presented.

But Cook is no Elon Musk, no Jeff Bezos or – more relevantly – a Steve Jobs, Cook’s predecessor. Nor will Cook ever be those people. The author is very clear about that with respect to the final name on the list. Myriad aspects of Cook’s life, from his upbringing in the South of the US, in Mobile, Alabama, via engineering school, to stints at IBM and eventually his landing at Apple, illustrate how he is everything else but those actors and the idealised American CEO.

For Cook, not matching the ideals turned out to be rather helpful in steering the often challenged company through rough waters. Being an engineer, he solves business and corporate problems like an engineer.

The difference between Cook and Jobs is a recurring theme. "He [Steve Jobs] wasn't just the CEO, he was Apple's chief product officer – the person who makes the key decisions about the products. Cook hasn't taken on that role," is just one comment Kahney chooses to cite.

The tale hinges on how Cook managed to turn being different into genuine strengths. He knows the pulse of time. He knows that a company can afford to invest to do the ‘right thing’ when there’s demand from its customers (becoming greener for example). It is the personal detail Kahney has managed to dig out that helps the reader to build an emotional connection to Cook’s character and illustrates Cook’s empathy. It may also give introverted readers the confidence to believe that that their personality might not be an obstacle to seizing the chance to one day lead and manage successfully.

Undeniably, this book is supportive of those who push and fight for more diversity and acceptance within corporate America and will be welcomed among various niche audiences. Kahney’s work dives deep into Cook’s measures for building a more egalitarian workforce and leadership style.

Cook made ‘workplace diversity’ part of his innovation strategy. “It will help Apple to innovate, by bringing a variety of voices and experiences to the product development process,” he said. Yet unlike others, Cook does not believe that a diverse workforce alone is sufficient. The company has to go the extra mile to succeed.

Diversity means making Apple stronger and Kahney explains in detail how the company approaches it. Explaining where the enthusiasm for equality originates is an important part of understanding Cook’s own journey.

Cook is gay and came out with a “heartfelt” essay on Bloomberg. It’s an engaging story of how a hardworking man, who had to hide in the dark for so long and perhaps knows the struggle of stigmatisation in a corporate culture, managed to convince all those who doubted his ability to be a role model and successful leader.

Despite Cook’s assumed hardship – the author speaks very little of it – he did stubbornly refuse to give up his humane principles of respect and love for people and his employees and colleagues. It is this that may strike a chord among readers.

The book is also written for the environmentalist who believes it’s high time that billion-dollar corporations doubled down on measures aimed at preserving the planet. In one chapter, Kahney explains Cook’s obsession with making Apple ‘greener’: Cook would have made his love for the environment clear with action, not only with words. Sadly, there’s not a great deal of detail about the challenges Cook faced personally when turning a beast like Apple into a green angel. The path Cook took here must have been anything but a cakewalk. The list of measures introduced – unheard of during Jobs’ tenure – is long, daring and exhibits the sheer scale of Cook’s change in direction.

Engineers in particular will appreciate the lessons this book provides – not least that principles taught in engineering school can be applied in other areas such as management of a trillion-dollar tech company. Cook is a perfect example. With an analytical mindset, he helped solving essential supply-chain issues and deployed essential outsourcing measures that may have added to the rescue of the company. Another lesson is that Cook’s initial work as a mere background aid, helped setting up behind the curtains for much bigger endeavours. Without that, many of Apple’s innovations that reached consumers may not have been as glorious as they were. Cook’s initial work may not have been as glamorous as inventing the next iPhone, but he went on to prove his ability to do that too, with the Apple Watch.

Another group this book speaks to is technologists and futurists. Apple’s plans include innovations that will require a cool-headed figure like Tim Cook if they are to see the light of day. Kahney elaborates on the potential for an ‘Apple car’ and its autonomous driving project, also known as Project Titan, which was first mentioned by Cook in mid-June 2017.

It is in this part of the book, however, that the author levels some criticism of Apple’s CEO: “But Project Titan looks to be a different order of failure… They hired a lot of people and they clearly have nothing to show for,” Kahney quotes an analyst as commenting.

The book however ends on a high note. One of the overarching lessons it tries to incorporate is that it does not needs a tough and ruthless bad guy to keep the success rate of a larger company in shape. Cook is a genuinely good guy and an engineer.

Returning to the words about Cook making Apple a better company and the world a better place, the author offers 240 pages of jam-packed facts supporting the argument that Cook is the person 21st-century technology should adopt as a role model. It may not be the type of character people expected when Steve Jobs handed over. And that may have been exactly what a constantly evolving company like Apple needed.

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