At Apple, Tim Cook leads a quiet cultural revolution

At Apple, Tim Cook leads a quiet cultural revolution

SAN FRANCISCO - Shortly after signing on as chief operating officer at Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg was looking to connect with people in a similar role - No. 2 to a brilliant and passionate young founder. She called Tim Cook.

"He basically explained nicely that my job was to do the things that Mark (Zuckerberg) did not want to focus on as much," Sandberg said of the 2007 meeting that lasted several hours with the chief operating officer of Apple Inc.

"That was his job with Steve (Jobs). And he explained that the job would change over time and I should be prepared for that."

While Sandberg has enjoyed a steady run at Facebook, it is Cook's job that has changed radically since then. Now, the man who was handed one of the more daunting tasks in business - filling the shoes of the late Steve Jobs and keeping Apple on top - may himself need a spot of advice.

Two years into Cook's tenure, Apple is expected to unveil a redesigned iPhone next month. It will be a key moment for Cook. The company he inherited has become a very different creature: a mature corporate behemoth rather than a scrappy industry pioneer, with its share price down 5 per cent this year, despite a recent rally. The S&P 500 is up about 15 per cent this year.

A transition was, perhaps, inevitable after an astonishing five-year run in which Apple's headcount tripled, its revenues rose over six-fold, its profits grew 12-fold, and its stock price jumped from US$150 (S$190) to a peak of US$705 last fall.

But it's been painful for some.

It is unclear whether the spread-sheeting-loving, consensus-oriented, even-keeled Cook can successfully reshape the cult-like culture that Jobs built. Though Cook has deftly managed the iPhone and iPad product lines, which continue to deliver enormous profits, Apple has yet to launch a major new product under Cook; talk of watches and televisions remains just that.

Some worry that Cook's changes to the culture have doused the fire - and perhaps the fear - that drove employees to try to achieve the impossible.

Can nice guys finish first?

Cook is known as a workaholic who guards his privacy closely. People who know him well paint a portrait of a thoughtful, data-driven executive who knows how to listen and who can be charming and funny in small group settings.

Lisa Cooper, who went to high school with Cook in Robertsville, Alabama, and remains a friend, still laughs at memories of Cook staging prank photos for the school yearbook and crooning "The Way We Were" to her in class.

In the day to day at Apple, Cook has established a methodical, no-nonsense style, one that's as different as could be from that of his predecessor.

Jobs' bi-monthly iPhone software meeting, in which he would go through every planned features of the company's flagship product, is gone.

"That's not Tim's style at all," said one person familiar with those meetings. "He delegates."

Still, he has a tough side. In meetings, Cook is so calm as to be nearly unreadable, sitting silently with hands clasped in front of himself. Any change in the constant rocking of his chair is one sign subordinates look for: when he simply listens, they're heartened if there is no change in the pace of his rocking.

"He could skewer you with a sentence," the person said. "He would say something along the lines of 'I don't think that's good enough' and that would be the end of it and you would just want to crawl into a hole and die." Apple declined to comment on Cook or the company for this article.

Cook's fans say that his methodical manner doesn't get in the way of decisive action. They point to the Apple Maps fiasco, in which Apple replaced Google's mapping product with its own on the iPhone and it quickly became clear that Apple's maps were not ready for prime time.

Apple initially downplayed the glitches by saying Maps was a "major initiative" and they were "just getting started." But behind the scenes, Cook bypassed Scott Forstall, the mobile software chief (and Jobs favourite) who was responsible for maps, and tasked internet services honcho Eddy Cue with figuring out what exactly happened and what should be done.

Cook had a lot of questions, and the episode also prompted him to fast-track his thinking on the future direction of the critical phone and tablet software known as iOS, a person close to Apple recounted.

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