2014 Tsinghua Management Global Forum: Tsinghua SEM’s Dean QIAN Yingyi Dialogue with Apple’s CEO Tim Cook


On the evening of Oct 23rd 2014, as part of the Advisory Board meeting of Tsinghua University School of Economics and Management (Tsinghua SEM), the 2014 Tsinghua Management Global Forum was held in the auditorium of Weilun Building. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple Inc. and Tsinghua SEM Advisory Board member, had a dialogue with Tsinghua SEM’s Dean QIAN Yingyi. This is also Cook’s first public speech in a Chinese university. Tsinghua University President CHEN Jining and some members of the Advisory Board were also present. The Forum was hosted by Professor BAI Chong-en, Tsinghua SEM Associate Dean and Mansfield Freeman Chair Professor of Economics.

The 2014 Tsinghua Management Global Forum was hosted by Professor BAI Chong-en, Tsinghua SEM Associate Dean and Mansfield Freeman Chair Professor of Economics

The dialogue commenced after the screening of a video about Apple. Dean QIAN began by drawing links between last year’s and this year’s forums, pointing out the historical connection between Apple Inc. and PepsiCo and the coincidence that PepsiCo’s CEO was last year’s keynote speaker. Dean QIAN and Cook discussed various topics, including the launch of Apple Watch, Cook’s challenges as the successor of Steve Jobs, the partnership between Apple and IBM, Apple’s strategy in China, Cook’s view on environmental protection and Steve Jobs’ legacy.

2014 Tsinghua Management Global Forum: Tsinghua SEM’s Dean QIAN Yingyi Dialogue with Apple’s CEO Tim Cook

In his first question, Dean QIAN wasted no time by asking Cook whether Apple’s latest product, Apple Watch, will be able to repeat the success of iPhone and iPad. Cook replied that Apple has a unique edge, as it has always spent an extensive amount of time and effort to think and design new products. Hence, he was confident that the Apple Watch will be the best product in the wearable category. He pointed out that Apple has always believes in “having the best product, and not the first product.” He is convinced that “the best product is usually the simplest one”, but it is also the most difficult thing to achieve. He noted that customers want things that are easy to use, so the company is determined to create such products. The fact that Apple spent three years to develop Apple Watch is a reflection of Apple’s mission, which is “building the best products that enrich people’s lives”. To him and the company, “Economics is the result of doing the right thing.”

2014 Tsinghua Management Global Forum: Tsinghua SEM’s Dean QIAN Yingyi Dialogue with Apple’s CEO Tim Cook

As Steve Jobs’ successor, Cook has faced enormous pressure and challenges since taking the top job in 2011. Responding to Dean QIAN’s question on how he managed to deal with these challenges and pressure, Cook spoke frankly, stating that being Steve Jobs is indeed a mission impossible. He has never seen it as his goal to do so because Jobs told him that “he (Cook) should never think about what he (Jobs) would do, he (Cook) should just do what is right.” As for Apple, the toughest decision is “what not to do”, because of the many possibilities and opportunities present. In order for the company to have products that are of the highest quality, it can only focus its limited resources on a few products.

2014 Tsinghua Management Global Forum: Tsinghua SEM’s Dean QIAN Yingyi Dialogue with Apple’s CEO Tim Cook

Dean QIAN would like to know the reasons behind the recently announced partnership between Apple and IBM, since it is known publicly that both companies used to be rivals. Cook replied that this partnership is a win-win situation for both companies, claiming that their strengths complemented each other. He is confident that together they can change the way people work, and the ultimate beneficiaries of this partnership will be the customers.

Touching on the company’s strategy in China, Cook commented that Apple is not concerned about its market share in China. He believes that the company will achieve great success in China as long as it makes the best products.

On the issue of environmental protection, Dean QIAN noted that Apple has placed great importance on it, and queried Cook on his opinion regarding the return of investment in the company’s investment in sustainable development. Cook acknowledged that a similar question has been asked recently, and said that Apple is also taking on other big social issues. He firmly believes that “companies have souls like people do”, so they should be socially responsible. Although these investments may not generate returns in the short run, he is confident that they will be beneficial for the company in the long run.

Audience at the 2014 Tsinghua Management Global Forum

Since taking over the deanship of Tsinghua SEM in 2006, Dean QIAN has showed Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford commencement speech to freshmen during the orientation or in the first class annually, believing that it will help them to think and reflect on their future. Directing the question to Cook, he asked, “What do you read from Steve Jobs’ life that you feel could be most inspiring for Tsinghua students?” Cook revealed that Jobs spent a lot of time to prepare for the speech and thought deeply about its content. He believes that the three lessons in the speech were the most important to Jobs. Apart from them, Jobs was admired for his ability to focus, and he had always tried his best to remove unnecessary clutter in both his work and life in order to free his mind. He shared that Jobs believed strongly in the “simple”, so he was willing to spend a lot of time to get things right. In addition, Jobs was more than just a perfectionist, because he “deeply cared about things”, and he was never fixated on money.

For his “one more thing” question, Dean QIAN invited Cook to share about the best advice he has received and the story behind it. Cook answered that the best advice came from Jobs, who, in his final days, reminded Cook never to ask himself what Jobs would think and do. Cook expressed his deepest gratitude for this advice, because it allowed him to leave the burden and do his best.

In the Q&A session, on behalf of Tsinghua SEM students, Dean QIAN asked Cook questions regarding student entrepreneurship and leadership development.

Cook replied that there is no right answer on career path, because “there is no one path that is always right”. His advice will be for students to “follow their heart”. He said, “If your intuition is telling you that you have a great idea, and you are passionate about the idea, then go for it. But don’t do it for money, do it for the passion for the product and what it can do for other people.” He reiterated that money and success are secondary effects of doing great things.

On leadership development, Cook offered two pieces of advice. Firstly, he stressed the importance of teamwork. He believes that his MBA education at Duke, where he had to collaborate with his classmates extensively, has helped him to be where he is now. It enabled him to understand that no man is an island, and having a good team will enable people to achieve their full potential. Secondly, he believes that curiosity is very critical for personal development and people should be interested in the “how”. He said, “I can’t think any highly successful person that I know who is not curious. Jobs was the most curious person that I have ever known.”

Dean QIAN Yingyi presented a specially customized iPad for Tsinghua SEM EMBA program to Tim Cook as a gift

Tim Cook presented Dean QIAN with a gift that reads “30”, with “0” being substituted by the iconic Apple logo

As the dialogue came to an end, Dean QIAN surprised everyone when he presented Cook with an iPad as a souvenir. He explained that it was not an ordinary iPad, as it is a specially customized iPad for Tsinghua SEM EMBA program: its cover is specially designed to be consistent with the previous paper-based covers and the iPad is loaded with all course materials for the entire program. Since its introduction in 2012, Tsinghua SEM EMBA program has gone paperless by providing each EMBA student with this specially customized iPad. This gift is symbolic of the close connection that Tsinghua SEM has with Apple.

Group photo of Tim Cook and guests at the 2014 Tsinghua Management Global Forum

2014 happens to be the 30th anniversary of both Tsinghua SEM and Apple’s legendary Macintosh computer. To commemorate this, Cook presented Dean QIAN with a gift that reads “30”, with “0” being substituted by the iconic Apple logo. Together with Dean QIAN, they concluded the memorable night by saying “Happy Birthday” together.