Why Some High-Profile Hires Don’t Thrive at Apple

4 minute read
| Editorial

Apple Campus 1 (AC1)

Recently, a high profile executive, Yoky Matsuoka, left Apple. Often, the temptation is to surmise that a departure of any given executive at Apple is a sign that Apple is losing interest in a particular technology. However, that’s not always the case. Sometimes, certain high-powered people just don’t know what they’re getting into and decide that the Apple culture isn’t for them. I’m not saying any of this is what happened with Ms. Matsuoka, But it does offer an opportunity to explain a few things about Apple.

Failure is an Option

There are few adults who haven’t had the experience of being uncomfortable, uneasy or unhappy in at least one job in their lives. It can happen at Apple as well. It’s just that our expectation of Apple is a little skewed. That is to say, how can a company with such an exciting vision and exciting products not be a joy to work for? Who would ever want to depart hallowed ground?

It turns out Apple, like any other company, can be be a bad fit for some eager new hires. Or there can be rare instances of a really bad boss. Transferring between departments is difficult at Apple, at least when I worked there, and so an really unhappy employee’s only option is to resign.

The Apple Atmosphere

I can’t speak for the Tim Cook regime. I was there when Steve Jobs was in his prime. But I think enough of the culture has survived that I can describe a few things with a broad brush.

First, Apple is a company that is intensely envied and copied by competitors. For Apple to thrive, it has to keep its roadmaps and product plans secret. That should be obvious to any academic, but it’s often surprising how academic types, accustomed to working and thinking with peers in their field, feel trapped when they can no longer attend conferences, trade emails about their research and publish papers about their amazing work.

In addition, at Apple there is stressful combination of long hours and lack of tolerance for mistakes. It’s expected that any employee work very hard, have considerable achievements and do so without error.

That apocryphal story about a frightening encounter with Steve Jobs in the IL1 elevator and being unable to brilliantly articulate your role at Apple always loomed. It drove one’s mindset and carried along with it stress that some found hard to deal with. My take is that Tim Cook has done a lot to eliminate needless fear while still setting high standards.

Volleyball in Infinite Loop courtyard.

Make no mistake. Apple employees have a lot of fun.

Another source of frustration for people hired as Directors, Senior Directors and Vice Presidents is that they are accustomed to calling the shots in their former job. But at Apple, the corporate vision is tightly held by the 11 senior members of the Apple executive team. That means that any lesser executive’s imperative is to implement the vision, not create their own. This is part of the legacy of Steve Jobs. Maverick VPs who engage in turf-building are not tolerated.

And so, these senior people, who thrive on creativity and authority often find themselves in a situation, contrary to military doctrine, with a lot of responsibility to perform but not as much authority as they assumed they’d have. It requires a unique, flexible, intelligent, patient, graceful and introspective mind to get one’s head around the Apple vision, then work as a manager to execute it with leadership and a smile.

Finally, and my list is by no means exhaustive, Apple has a strong legacy of speaking with only one voice. The Communications group, formerly led by Katie Cotton and now by Steve Dowling alone speaks for Apple, in general, with media relations. Executive Team members are typically “press certified” and can also speak for Apple, notably Tim Cook and Phil Schiller.

Any lesser executive who decides they should speak to the press or even send out an innocent tweet on some policy matter will be in hot water. They may or may not be given a second chance.

Next page: A personal story from my Apple days.

One Comment Add a comment

  1. wab95

    John:

    These are very useful insights, and the cautionary guidance about surmising or assuming that a departure signals company loss of interest or a direction change applies to other aspects of Apple’s business (and not only Apple, but any corporation or institution). It could just as well be a consolidation of activities that, having matured, have a natural fit together under one umbrella, require a different focus (which may or may not be part of a given leader’s core skill set), or be for very personal reasons, including what for them is a superior opportunity elsewhere.

    Your description of Apple’s hierarchy also points out what may be a distinguishing feature of Apple, namely the subordination of talent to a singular objective and the need to apply ‘all hands on deck’ to that aim. This is even less an analogy for the military per se than it is for a military campaign, in which all allied forces are under one supreme allied commander following a common plan.

    What is clear is that such an environment is not for everyone. It is not a matter of talent, creativity or intellect as much as it is (talent assumed) a mindset and a belief in and dedication to ‘the mission’ of Apple, or whatever entity is so run. If that commitment is not there, or if it was but now is lost for whatever reason, it’s time to move on – even more so if one believes in the mission.




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