UNBOXED: Reviewing Leander Kahney's ‘Tim Cook’ Book
This is a bit of a different review from what I’m used to doing. Typically, we’re looking at headphones, keyboards, and product that we can put to use in our daily lives and offer up honest takes on how those products performed. Taking that approach with a book—the first book I’ve read with the intent of writing up a review—was interesting, to say the least. But here we are. And I’m more than thankful to Leander Kahney and his team at Portfolio/Penguin for giving me the opportunity to read his new work, Tim Cook: The Genius Who Took Apple to the Next Level, ahead of its public debut April 16.
The best place to start, I’d say, is by getting to know a little about the author of the book. Kahney, the man behind other Apple-related works like Inside Steven’s Brain, and Jony Ive, is a very well versed analyst of the company he’s spent the better part of his career covering. Over the past dozen or so years he worked as the news editor for Wired.com and is currently the editor of CultofMac.com. He’s well respected both in the industry and, more specifically, at Apple—as evidenced by the company’s willingness to make some key c-suite executives available to him on multiple occasions now.
Throughout the 230-plus pages of the book, Kahney eloquently documents Cook’s upbringing as a son of the South during an interesting time period of racial and cultural divide and the impact that had on his outlook on life and business. Peppered with interviews and insights from former and current colleagues and acquaintances, Kahney paints an intricate picture of what drove Cook to excel in his early years at IBM and Compaq, which ultimately made him stand out to a guy like Steve Jobs.
What gets overlooked in Cook’s story is the fact that he was the handpicked successor to Jobs, by Jobs himself. After the Apple founder passed away in 2011, many expected the company to name one of a few internal candidates as the next leader, with some even positing that Apple would bring in someone from the outside. Rather, as Kahney details, it was always going to be Cook’s gig. From the beginning, Jobs treated Cook differently from other executives at the company, moving him from team to team, giving him a wide-ranging list of responsibilities. He essentially was grooming him to one day become his replacement—just perhaps not as soon as anyone, especially Cook, would have expected.
And though he might have been the least likely executive to those who covered the company, Cook ended up being the perfect CEO at the perfect time for Apple. The company today is producing annual revenue figures that are three-times what they were while Jobs was alive—a fact Cook still doesn’t get enough credit for. Cook, as Kahney uncovers through executive interviews, has quietly and strategically changed the corporate culture at Apple while also helping it achieve incredible new heights. He’s managed to humanize Apple. And he’s done so through a specific set of six core values that are at the heart of everything the company does: Accessibility, Education, Environment, Inclusion and Diversity, Privacy, and Supplier Responsibility.
Under Jobs, Apple might’ve only paid lip service to any number of those initiatives. But, with Cook at the helm, Apple has used its position of influence to make a real and legitimate impact in every single one of those areas. Some might argue that Apple isn’t doing enough or acting with enough urgency in certain areas. But the fact that they’re acting at all is a direct result of Cook’s leadership style. There may be no better example of that than Cook’s 2014 op-ed in Bloomberg where he announced himself as the first publicly out Fortune 500 CEO.
“While I have never denied my sexuality, I haven’t publicly acknowledged it either, until now,” he wrote. “So let me be clear: I’m proud to be gay, and I consider being gay among the greatest gifts God has given me.”
So, despite the fact that many still question whether or not Cook can continue to be as innovative as a man like Steve Jobs, what Kahney ultimately portrays throughout the Tim Cook book is that he doesn’t necessarily have to be—from a product standpoint at least. Cook, like Jobs, has so much talent around him who will continue to push the company forward in new and exciting directions. Where Cook stands out is in his ability to connect with both his team and the public. He’s innovating Apple from a cultural perspective, which, by my account, is just as important as the products themselves.
Whether you’re a fan of Apple’s products or not, Kahney’s latest work is a very engaging, quick read that pulls back the covers on one of the most interesting and influential companies of all time and their leader who’s taken them to impressive new heights.