"When should we listen to our professors and ... when's it OK to break the rules?"
That question, asked by a student during a leadership event at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, had the audience laughing. Though Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL ) CEO Tim Cook chuckled, his answer was solemn and unhesitating: "I think you should rarely follow the rules." Definitely not the typical advice given to college students. Nevertheless, Fuqua alum Cook was clear: "I think you should write the rules. I think if you do follow things in a formulaic manner, you will wind up, at best, being the same as everybody else -- maybe you miss something, and you're a little worse. If you want to excel, you can't do that."
This was the second of two interview appearances for Cook last week. The other appearance was a lengthy interview at All Things Digital. Cook had a great deal to say about business at both events. Below, I've summarized the most notable nuggets.
Learn to listen to your intuition
Beginning with his initial decision to leave Compaq in 1998 (arguably the most successful PC company at the time) to work for Steve Jobs at Apple, Cook has counted on intuition for many decisions.
Though he does believe that an intuitive gut will mature with experience, that's not the major problem people have when it comes to intuition. "The struggle that most people have, I think, is learning to listen to it and figuring out how to access it in some way," Cook told students at Duke University.
Keep ethics simple
The famous Enron and WorldCom scandals, popularized by business texts as examples of unethical businesses, don't encapsulate the true ethical dilemma managers face, says Cook. It's simpler than that. He sums it up this way: "When I think of ethics, I think of leaving things better than you found them."
Cook says this approach to ethics applies to every area, including the environmental effects of your products, the way you deal with suppliers, the way you treat your employees, and so on. In fact, Cook says that he tries to live his life by this mantra.
Find "wicked smart people"
How do you foster world-class collaboration? Cook's answer for Duke University students was succinct. Cook looks for people that are not political and bureaucratic -- people that don't really care who will get the credit for excellent work. They should "appreciate different points of view." And last, but not least, they should be "wicked smart."
The "customer is the judge"
Slacking on the customer experience isn't the way to go. Cook told Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher at All Things Digital:
No matter what business you're in, ultimately the customer is the judge. ... iPad has the highest customer [satisfaction] of any tablet. ... That's what we're about. Not winning awards -- we're about enriching customers' lives. And making great products. Not making the most.
Find your North Star
On careers, Cook recounted of his own, "For me, the journey was not predictable -- at all." The 25-year plan his professor at Duke University had him write up, he told students, had no relation to what actually happened in his career. "The only thing I believe you can do is prepare," he said. "You sort of have to have a North Star, and stay with the North Star."
Cook & Co.
For now, investors seem to be mostly split on the Apple's stock, with Cook among the heated topics. Though these principles may have successfully guided him as Apple's chief operating officer, many are questioning whether his principles will carry over to the CEO position. Though time will undoubtedly uncover the answer, I'd love to hear your thoughts on Cook's advice in the comments below.