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Apple unveiled the first iPod at a press event in a modest theatre housed in its headquarters on Oct. 23, 2001. The music player was a revolutionary product, crafted to meet the high standards of the company’s chief executive. Steve Jobs had pushed his team to produce a device that looked cool while being both easy to use and small enough to fit in your pocket. But the iPod wouldn’t have been a success if not for the efforts of Tim Cook, then the senior vice-president of operations. It was Cook’s job to build a supply chain that enabled Apple to produce more units at a faster pace than it ever had before. Cook “quickened the company’s metabolism,” as journalists Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli put it in their Jobs biography. That unsexy work made possible the iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch—and on it goes.

Cook became Apple’s chief operating officer in 2005 and then its CEO six years later, shortly before Jobs’s death. The two men had very different strengths, making it easy to see how the meticulous, even-keeled COO balanced the visionary, mercurial Jobs. And Cook was not alone in supporting his boss. While Apple’s founder is often portrayed as a solo act, the company’s later success, in particular, depended on a team of exceptional executives.

We launched the Best Executive Awards last year to celebrate business leaders who don’t yet occupy the corner office. These individuals—C-level executives, plus executive and senior vice-presidents—were nominated by their colleagues and then evaluated by members of our team based on their accomplishments and leadership abilities. To ensure our final list reflected the many talents needed to run a thriving organization, we chose 10 honourees in each of five functional areas: finance, human resources, operations, sales and marketing, and technology.

These individuals all excel in their own fields, but I was also struck by how many of them were praised by their peers for adjusting to fit the moment. Some have become champions of diversity and inclusion; others are mentors to colleagues outside their department. Their efforts—like Cook’s on the iPod—are often low-profile and unsung. We’re here to change that.

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