Adam Lashinsky : An interview by Bob Morris

Posted on: March 15th, 2012 by bobmorris

Adam Lashinsky is a senior editor at large for FORTUNE Magazine, where he covers Silicon Valley and Wall Street. Some of his cover-story subjects have included Apple, Hewlett-Packard and Google. He has written in-depth articles on Wells Fargo, Intel, Oracle, eBay, Twitter, and the venture-capital industry, as well as on topics ranging from San Francisco politics and oil-exploration technology to the post-Katrina economic recovery of New Orleans. In addition, Lashinsky is a Fox News Channel (FNC) contributor appearing on the following business shows: “Bulls and Bears,” “Cashin’ In,” “Cavuto on Business,” and “Your World with Neil Cavuto.” He is also the author of Inside Apple: How America’s Most Admired – and Secretive – Company Really Works, published by Business Plus (2012).

Prior to joining FORTUNE, Lashinsky was a columnist for The San Jose Mercury News and TheStreet. Before moving to California, he was a reporter and editor for Crain’s Chicago Business. As a Henry Luce Scholar, he worked for a year in Tokyo as a reporter for the Nikkei Weekly, the English-language version of Japan’s main economic daily. He began his career in the Washington, D.C., bureau of Crain Communications. A native of Chicago, Lashinsky earned a degree in history and political science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and daughter.

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Morris: Before discussing Inside Apple, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? Please explain.

Lashinsky: It may sound corny, but my mother and father had the greatest influence. They got me started on a good path of loving to learn and instilling confidence in me. They both had a passion for words and ideas, and they also came from the school of parenting that supports their children in whatever it was they wanted to do. I don’t think they would have been pleased if I had chosen to be a beach bum. But they likely would have supported my decision to do it.

Morris: The greatest impact of your professional development?

Lashinsky: I’ve been blessed with great mentors and bosses for my entire career, which began in the summer of 1988 when I started writing opinion pieces for The Daily Illini at the University of Illinois in Urbana, Ill. My current boss, Andy Serwer, managing editor of Fortune Magazine, has been nothing but supportive and encouraging of me and my career at every turn. He is personally responsible for my turning my attention to Apple, beginning in 2008, which has changed the course of my career.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning-point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow?

Lashinsky: Yes. In the summer between my junior and senior years at Illinois, where I was studying history and political science, I started contributing political columns to The Daily Illini, at the encouragement of my girlfriend at the time, who worked at the paper, and also became a professional journalist. I got a regular column in the fall term and fell in love with journalism. By the spring term of my senior year I was accepting any assignment I could in order to build up clips that I could show to prospective employers. I had been bitten by the journalism bug, and I have been enjoying the consequences ever since.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education in history and political science proven invaluable to what you have achieved thus far?

Lashinsky: History in particular gave me a good grounding in analytical thinking and gave me an ability to put important events in perspective. Whether or not the courses I took have benefited me directly, I can draw a straight line from my love of history to my interest in journalism as a career.

Morris: What are the most common misconceptions about the Silicon Valley culture? What, in fact, is true?

Lashinsky: It’s a misperception that everyone is stinking rich. Plenty entrepreneurs fail. It’s true that failure is celebrated—or at least not stigmatized—in Silicon Valley. People truly take risks here, and that is exciting.

Morris: Of all that has changed in the business world during (let’s say) the last decade, which single development – in your opinion – has had the greatest impact? Please explain?

Lashinsky: Undoubtedly the Internet has constituted the biggest change. When I started in journalism we didn’t have email. We didn’t check Web sites. We didn’t have smartphones. Our entire mode of communicating has changed. And I’m not exactly ancient.

Morris: In your opinion, is launching a new company today more difficult, less difficult, or about the same as it was ten years ago? Please explain.

Lashinsky: Easier. But the precise dates you choose are relevant. It was extremely easy to start a company before 2001 because there was so much capital, and then difficult from 2001 to 2005 or so. But things are generally easier today because some of the building blocks of starting a company—computing power, storage capacity, software—have gotten anywhere from cheap to free.

Morris: Of all the U.S. presidents, which do you think was best qualified to be CEO of a “Fortune 50” company in the 21st century? Why?

Lashinsky: This question defies rational analysis, so instead I’ll go with a gut instinct and say Abraham Lincoln. Here’s why: Nothing in his background suggested he would be a great president, yet he was. He had a certain something, a magic, an instinct for what needed to be done. The great CEOs have this, and all the rest are less than great.

Morris: From your perspective as a journalist, what do you think will happen to (a) daily newspapers and (b) bound volumes?

Lashinsky: Newspapers eventually will go away. Which isn’t to say news will go away. We’ll have a painful and sad transition to whatever the digital product will look like—and then we’ll forget that we lamented their demise. If by bound volumes you mean books, I think essentially the same thing will happen, though books will survive longer because certain subjects—art, coffee table, kids—will lend themselves longer to the physical product.

Morris: What do you think will be the single greatest challenge that CEOs will face in (let’s say) the next 3-5 years? Any advice?

Lashinsky: Globalization means the importance of geographies changes more quickly than before. Just because a massive investment in China makes sense today doesn’t mean it will in five years. Advice: Subscribe to Fortune Magazine. We’ll do our best to keep you ahead of the curve.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Inside Apple. When and why did you decide to write it?

Lashinsky: In December, 2010, Andy Serwer assigned me to write the article that appeared in May, 2011, in the Fortune 500 issue, of the same name, Inside Apple. I sold it almost immediately to expand into a book, which appeared in January.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it?

Lashinsky: I am still amazed at Apple’s internal secrecy, the way that it keeps secrets from its own people. Audiences I speak to are amazed by this too.

Morris: To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from the one you initially envisioned?

Lashinsky: I certainly didn’t know everything that would be in the book when I started writing it. I was pleased at the additional information I was able to collect for the book.

Morris: In your opinion, what will be history’s evaluation of Steve Jobs as (a) a person and (b) as a businessman? Why?

Lashinsky: Like many truly great, amazing, singular businessmen (there’s your answer to “b”), Jobs will be remembered as a complex and conflicted person. He behaved horribly to the people around him, yet it’s open to debate that without his behavior he wouldn’t have been able to achieve what he achieved. I don’t have an opinion on that. My task was to assess and explain the methods of the company he built. I never suggest anyone should be “like Steve” or that the path to success is to emulate Apple in every way. I do suggest it would be a fruitful exercise to understand how the most successful company in the world works.

Morris: What are the most common misconceptions about the Apple workplace and organizational structure, at least when Jobs was CEO? What, in fact, is true?

Lashinsky: The most common misperception is that Steve Jobs was responsible for everything. What’s true is that that he did sign off on everything that mattered.

Morris: I re-read Inside Apple before formulating these questions and was even more aware – than before – of the extent to which both Jobs and Apple can be defined by paradoxes. Is that a fair assessment?

Lashinsky: It’s 100% fair, and I think I said so in the book. That Apple is so maverick and different on the one hand, yet so old-school corporate in other ways (like it’s culture of responsibility) would be just one example.

Morris: Please explain Steve Wozniak’s significance during Apple’s history.

Lashinsky: I didn’t study the pre-1997 period because my book focuses on the “modern” Apple. My understanding is that Wozniak was the technical brains behind Apple’s first two or so computers, and that after that his significance ended.

Morris: What is a “productive narcissist”? To what extent does Jobs exemplify one?

Lashinsky: A productive narcissist, as defined by the writer and business coach, Michael Maccoby, is a charismatic, visionary, risk-taking, often-uncaring executive who can channel his or her narcissism in a productive way. Jobs ticked every box in the productive narcissist profile.

Morris:  You assert, “Everything is a secret at Apple.” Please explain.

Lashinsky: Secrecy is a central principle at Apple. Competitors, customers and colleagues do not get information until they need to. If something is a principle at Apple, then it is adhered to absolutely. It’s that kind of place.

Morris: What is the key to Apple’s design philosophy? Why is that significant?

Lashinsky: The key is that design trumps almost everything else, including financial considerations. It matters because when you emphasize design, you give yourself the shot of coming up with great products. If you emphasize financials you are almost certain not to.

Morris: At one point in your lively narrative, you observe, “Simplicity is the DNA of the company but also its lean organizational structure.” Please explain.

Lashinsky: Apple has only about 70 vice presidents out of more than 25,000 non-retail employees. That is beyond lean.

Morris: Now please explain the title of Chapter 4, “Start Start-Up Hungry.”

Lashinsky: When necessary, Apple re-creates the startup vibe within small groups. It’s quite a feat for such a big company.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of Apple’s hiring policies and procedures?

Lashinsky: The most titillating one is that not everyone knows what they are going to be doing when they start at Apple.

Morris: What are the most significant differences between Steve Jobs and Tim Cook both as people and as business leaders?

Lashinsky: They are different in every way, from their skill sets to their demeanor to their educational backgrounds to their personal interests.

Morris: Jobs’ passing aside, which of the two is better qualified to be CEO of Apple now and in years to come? Please explain.

Lashinsky: There’s no comparison. There never will be another CEO like Steve Jobs. If you think back to my answer on Abraham Lincoln, Jobs and only Jobs had the magic that can’t be explained. Cook is outstanding, but appears to be merely mortal in comparison.

Morris: Who is Katie Cotton and why is she especially significant?

Lashinsky: She is the head of corporate communications, and she executed Steve Jobs’s unique PR strategy and tactics.

Morris: Please explain the relationship between Edwin Land and Steve Jobs.

Lashinsky: They would have only met briefly, but Jobs greatly admired Land for having created Polaroid and for commercializing the technology he invented.

Morris: Please explain the reference to “Apple’s thin-skinned soul.”

Lashinsky: No one likes to be criticized. Apple hates it.

Morris: Please explain Paco Underhill’s observation that the Apple store is “an example in evangelism.”

Lashinsky: Apple’s stores double as retail outlets and promotional vehicles. They are so gorgeous people buy things there they didn’t know they wanted.

Morris: Please explain the title of Chapter 8, “Plan for After Your Successor.”

Lashinsky: Jobs began thinking late in life about institutionalizing his teachings at Apple, including with Apple University. He wanted Apple managers far into the future to understand how he ran the place.

Morris: In your opinion, to what extent was Steve Jobs a bottleneck at Apple?

Lashinsky: He was very much of one. He could only do a few things at once, and nothing advanced without his attention.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read Inside Apple, you share some of the revelations of research conducted by Geoffrey West, the Santa Fe physicist, on the life span of cities.

Here’s my question: Of all these revelations, which do you consider to be most relevant to Apple?

Lashinsky: The odds are against Apple continuing to be great.

Morris: What is the biggest pitfall when attempting to be like Apple? How so?

Lashinsky: It’s difficult to pull off Apple’s arrogance. You better be as good as Apple if you’re going to try.

Morris: In months and years to come, how best to determine the health of Apple’s organization, if viewed as a living organism? What are – and will be — its vital signs?

Lashinsky: Apple lives and dies by its products. You’ll know the organism isn’t well if the products aren’t well received.

Morris: In your opinion, where is Apple most vulnerable as it proceeds through the post-Jobs era? Any advice to offer?

Lashinsky: It’s sheer size and complexity are going to be its biggest vulnerability. That and its many enemies—or at least those with bruised feelings—who will cheer any failure.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Lashinsky: I have not been subjected to a more thorough interview since I began promoting this book. Not one!

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Adam invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

http://adamlashinsky.net

http://www.amazon.com/inside-apple

http://www.facebook.com/adamlashinsky 

https://twitter.com/#!/adamlashinsky

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