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World-Class Business Advice From Apple Inc. (AAPL)’s CEO

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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 Inc. (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.”

Should this Concern Apple Inc. (AAPL) and Google Inc (GOOG)?

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 Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL), 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.

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