Talent Management Lessons From Apple: A Case Study of the World’s Most Valuable Firm (Part 1 of 4)

This past August Apple became the most valuable corporation in the world based on market capitalization, surpassing every firm in the technology industry and every other industry! As a consumer products company, its prolonged growth spurt is even more amazing because it has continued through economic times when consumers are reluctant to spend what little they have. Considering that Apple was near bankruptcy in 1997, its story is both extraordinary and noteworthy.

The extraordinary valuation is not a result of 30+ years of stellar performance. Apple has failed at many things. Its success isn’t the result of access to special equipment, manufacturing capability, or a great location, but rather superior leadership, access to great talent, and unusual talent management approaches.

Almost everyone in business is aware of Apple’s amazing product success and the extraordinary leadership of Steve Jobs. Some authors have described the firm’s approach to HR, but few have analyzed the firm close enough to identify why the approaches work. Visits to the headquarters and interviews with HR leaders convinced me that there are lessons to be learned from this company. After two decades of researching and analyzing Apple’s approach to talent management, I have compiled a list of the key differentiators.

Apple Talent Management Approaches to Emulate

This three-part case study covers the many talent management factors that contributed to Apple’s extraordinary success in workforce productivity and innovation. It does not focus on the many important things that Steve Jobs did at Apple, because such things are not easily copied by others. It also focuses primarily on the approaches used within Apple’s corporate facilities versus those of Apple’s retail operations.

Agility Allows for Innovation into Completely New Areas

Many firms develop the capability to dominate their industry. Procter & Gamble, Intel, and Toyota are excellent examples. Apple is in a different league, however, because it has demonstrated the ability to shift into and dominate completely new industries every few years. For most of its history, Apple was a computer company (and its name used to be Apple Computer), but in the last decade Apple tackled the music industry with the iPod device and iTunes distribution channel. Next Apple conquered and dominated the smartphone industry with the iPhone and “App Store.” Most recently Apple challenged the PC as we know it and is in the process of disrupting the publishing industry. This ability to successfully shift from one industry to another in a few short years is known as agility. In my book, even wildly successful firms like Google, Facebook, Toyota, or Procter & Gamble can’t come close to matching Apple’s agility track record.

A great deal of Apple’s agility comes from the direction and vision of its senior leadership and its corporate culture, which reinforces the need to get ready for “the next big thing.” While Apple looks for agility in talent, the real key to Apple’s agility occurs post onboarding. At Apple, there is a cultural expectation that after succeeding in one task, you will immediately move on to something completely different. You know that you will have to retool and learn quickly. The expectation of radical change eliminates resistance and sends a message that employees can’t rest on their laurels. That means that they must mentally prepare for (and even look forward to) the next extraordinary challenge, even though you will get almost no “career path” help in determining which is the next best challenge for you. Apple employees work in numerous disconnected team silos, competing against one another with little or no foresight into the purpose or intended use date of their work.

The rapidly shifting work load means than an employee bored with their work won’t be for long because the work and the focus will change, a major attraction factor that brings in recruits desiring the challenge of radical change. Looking at the big picture, Apple’s ability to move into and dominate completely unrelated industries is only possible because of its extraordinary talent, the way that it manages it, and its approach to building an image that attracts the new skills needed to successfully move into completely new product areas.

A “Lean” Talent Management Approach Contributes to Extraordinary Productivity

Most firms strive to have a productive workforce. One of the best ways to measure workforce productivity is revenue per employee. Apple produces what can only be considered extraordinary revenue per employee; $2 million. A second measure of workforce productivity is profit per employee: nearly $478,000 for Apple (unbelievable considering it has a retail workforce).

If you are familiar with the concept of lean management, then you’ll understand the prime drivers for Apple’s extraordinary employee productivity. For years, the leadership of Apple has followed the philosophy that having less is more, meaning that by purposely understaffing and operating with reduced funding, you can make the team more productive and innovative.

Innovation at most firms is expensive because you must pay for a lot of trial and error. The lean approach, however, can improve innovation because with everything being tried, there simply isn’t enough time or money for major misses and re-do’s. “Unrealistic deadlines” at Apple mean that you have to get project problems solved early on, because there isn’t time to redo things over and over. Being lean forces the team to be more cohesive. Even providing a lean schedule forces everyone to be productive because they know there is no room for slippage. At Apple, the lean approach means that even with its huge cash resources, every employee must adopt the mentality of leanness. If you understand the lean concept and its advantages, you shouldn’t be surprised that numerous innovations have been developed in “garages,” the ultimate lean environment.

Build and Reinforce a Performance Culture

Any business analysis of Apple will reveal its laser focus on producing industry-leading results. While some feel the performance emphasis comes solely from Steve Jobs, the “performance culture” is continually reinforced by operational processes and practices. For example, having stock as a primary motivator forces employees to focus on the performance of the company and its stock. The rewards and recognition programs at Apple don’t include a component for effort or trying — only final results. Rather than celebrating numerous product milestones, only the final product unveiling is worthy of a major celebration.

A performance culture requires significant differentiation based on performance, and it’s clear that in this culture, the top performers and those who are working on mission-critical products are treated significantly differently. In fact, current and former employees frequently complained about the special treatment given to those designated as the “top 100 most important employees.”

Treating top performers differently may cause some employees to be disgruntled, but treating all employees exactly the same will frustrate your high-impact top performers and cause them to leave. Functions receive different funding also, based on their potential impact. Overhead functions that don’t directly produce product (i.e. HR) are often underfunded compared to product producing functions like engineering and product design.

Although there is certainly politics at Apple (where marketing seems to rule), having a degree from a prestigious school or past success on other products won’t get you far in the highly competitive culture at Apple. Jobs has no degree at all. The internal competition is fierce (even though they don’t know what other teams are doing) to develop or contribute to the most-talked about feature for the next WOW product.

Rather Than a Work/Life Balance, Emphasize the Work

Numerous HR functions proudly and prominently push work/life balance. Like them, Apple is proud of its long-established culture. You won’t find the term “balance” anywhere on the career site; instead, Apple makes it clear it is looking for extremely hard-working and committed individuals. On the website, for example, it proudly states: “This isn’t your cushy corporate nine-to-fiver.” It reinforces the “hard work” message several times, including “Making it all happen can be hard work. And you could probably find an easier job someplace else. But that’s not the point, is it?

And: “We also have a shared obsession with getting every last detail right. So leave your neckties, bring your ideas.”

If you don’t care about getting every precise detail perfect, great work, and a lot of it, Apple makes it crystal clear that this is not the place for you.

Next week: Part 2 — more talent management approaches to copy and learn from.

Talent Management Lessons From Apple … A Case Study of the World’s Most Valuable Firm (Part 2 of 4)

In Part 2 of this case study on Apple’s talent management practices, I look at its approach to innovation, compensation, and benefits, careerpathing, and online recruitment (its career site). Some approaches discussed are unique to sub-factions within Apple, as would be expected in any organization of significant size. It’s also quite rare for organizations that design, manufacture, and sell through direct retail to have consistent approaches across all units.

Talent Management Lessons To Learn and Copy (continued)

You should not be surprised to learn that the firm that made the term “think different” a brand uses talent management approaches that are well outside the norm. In addition to the lessons presented in Part 1, some approaches other firms can learn from Apple include:

Career paths reduce self-reliance and cross-pollination — in most organizations, HR helps to speed up employee career progression. The underlying premise is that retention rates will increase if career progression is made easy. The Apple approach is quite different; it wants employees to take full responsibility for their career movement. The concept of having employees “own their career” began years ago when Kevin Sullivan was the VP of HR. Apple doesn’t fully support career path help because it doesn’t want its employees to develop a “sense of entitlement” and think that they have a right to continuous promotion.

Apple believes career paths weaken employee self-reliance and indirectly decrease cross-departmental collaboration and learning. Absent a career path, employees actively seek out information about jobs in other functions and business units. In a company where creativity and innovation are king, you don’t want anything reducing your employee’s curiosity and the cross-pollination between diverse functions and units. Automatically moving employees up to the next functional job may also severely narrow the range of internal movement within the organization, which could reduce the level of diverse thinking in some groups.

Create and manage a culture of innovation — most firms have a culture with a singular focus on one attribute like performance, quality, customer service, or cost-containment. Apple is unique in that it has two dominant cultural attributes that exist side-by-side. The first (discussed in part one) is “performance,” with the second being “innovation”; the latter may actually be the strongest of the two. The dual emphasis works at Apple because the firm operates in the consumer technology field, where there is a universal expectation for “disruptive” performance.

Producing $2 million-plus in revenue per employee certainly establishes Apple as a performer, but it is its industry-dominating product innovation that differentiates it from competitors like HP, Sony, Microsoft, and IBM. Three factors drive the innovation attribute, including the expectation of continuous innovation, extreme secrecy within the product development process, and continuous brainstorming/challenge meetings (even at play just days before a product launch).

“I expect a pony”

Apple’s culture of innovation is unique because the goal is to produce a “pony, not a real horse but instead something so desirable that everyone wants it and considers it ‘gorgeous.’” Simple evolution doesn’t cut it — only extraordinary industry-leading innovation that results in WOW products does. To accomplish that, Apple doesn’t do what most consumers assume it does. Instead of developing completely new industry technologies, Apple takes existing technologies and then bundles numerous small developments on top to produce what appears to the public as giant step forward. It takes a powerful culture and group of managers to delay taking great work public faster, but Apple knows that numerous small releases don’t produce the same media and consumer buzz.

The expectation of innovation permeates the culture

The expectation of innovation is driven by Apple’s history of innovation, its leaders (who forbid the use of “that’s not possible”), and the peer pressure among employees to be among the contributors to the final product that the customer sees. In order to generate this expectation of innovation, it doesn’t rely on posters or motivational slogans (although they have those too … around here, changing the world just comes with the job description). Instead, every communication, process, product launch event, and even advertising slogans (Think Different, Imagine the Possibilities, Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. Etc.) make it crystal-clear that innovation is at the heart of Apple’s success. Innovation has driven Apple’s past and current successes, and it will continue to drive future success. After walking in the door of the corporate offices in Cupertino, California, you can literally “feel” the expectation to innovate.

Secrecy drives internal competition

The second critical driver of innovation is the product development process. This innovation process is unique in that it doesn’t rely on a formal “ideation” type model; instead, it has been described as an “iteration” process energized by peer competition and Apple’s famous siloed/secret approach to teams. Apple does many things using small development teams, as many firms do, but doesn’t rely on a single team to design each product element. Multiple teams may be assigned to the same area (or they may accidentally wander into the same area). The approach has been called 10 to 3 to 1 because 10 teams may work on a product area independently. When work is ready for review a formal peer review, it will whittle 10 mockups to three and eventually down to one. It is an approach that is unique to Apple. Outsiders may consider it expensive and slow, but they can’t argue it isn’t effective.

Apple is well known for its obsession with secrecy in order to heighten the impact during a product release. Secrecy is also the most unique element in its innovation process. In order to maintain secrecy, development and design teams are intentionally siloed. As a result of these communication barriers, team leaders may not be initially aware of how many teams they’re competing against and what those other teams are working on. The level of open collaboration that you might find at other firms like Google is not possible under this process, but neither is early-stage groupthink. Once possible feature solutions move forward to peer review, the organization benefits from broader scope best-practice sharing and collaboration. While it may seem counterintuitive, Apple has turned “team silos” that would be a negative factor at most firms into a positive force.

Paired design meetings force free-thinking to continue until the end of the design

Another element of the design and innovation process is the holding of weekly “paired design meetings.” Every design team is expected to hold two meetings each week. The first is a traditional production meeting where small refinements are discussed and made. The second is a “go crazy” meeting, in which everyone brainstorms and uses free-thinking to scope out parameters. Most organizations stop these brainstorming meetings once the design parameters are clear, but Apple continues them long into the development cycle to guarantee that completely new ideas will constantly raise the innovation bar.

The talent management lessons to learn in the area of innovation include the concept that intense competition may produce innovation faster than any formal ideation process. In addition, peer vetting of ideas, delaying collaboration until toward the end of the development process, and requiring the continuous use of brainstorming processes may result in bolder innovations and higher levels of risk-taking.

Tying economic rewards to overall company success can reduce selfish behavior – You won’t find anyone who will publicly argue that Apple pays well with regard to base compensation. Economic rewards at Apple are significant, but largely tied to the company’s valuation. The primary monetary motivator at Apple is “the opportunity for wealth creation” as a result of stock ownership. Most employees at Apple get periodic stock grants to reward their contribution. By putting the focus on the stock, they send every employee a clear message that individual accomplishments are important only if they directly contribute to the overall success of the company. This approach, coupled with the firm’s famous “product focus,” keeps everyone focused on product success rather than individual results and individual rewards. Individual rewards are provided based on performance and consist of stock grants and cash bonuses up to 30% of base salary. Apple’s retail employees also have stock opportunities. They are paid on an hourly basis and do not receive a sales commission.

Benefits and even pay play a secondary role in recruiting and retention— at Apple, the primary long-term attraction and retention factors are stock growth and exciting work. Because of the importance of these two factors, its message on benefits is clear. If you’re doing the best work of your life and having a major impact on the world, do you really need sushi in the cafeteria? (It has that also.) Although most talent competitors to Apple spend huge amounts of money on benefits, Apple’s offerings are spartan when compared to Google, Facebook, and Microsoft. While Apple’s health plan is well-funded, and it has good food and an on-campus gym, neither the food nor the gym is free. One perk that does excite potential applicants (especially in retail) is the employee discount on Apple products which is given to every employee. These discounts further support and reinforce Apple’s companywide emphasis on the product.

Your corporate jobs website should boldly inspire — because the primary goal of most corporate career/jobs websites is simply to provide company and job information to potential candidates, most corporate job pages are chock-full full of information. Apple’s website is lean on information but strong on inspiration. As a result, after exploring the site, the potential applicant comes away inspired rather than with a pile of information about the company.

There are two categories of inspirational messages on the site, and each one is bold. The first group of corporate messages makes it clear that Apple is “anti-corporate.” In fact, the first bold headline you see is “corporate jobs, without the corporate part.” They also highlight what they are proud not to have including endless meetings, being bureaucratic, having executive perks and managers wearing suits. Instead they boldly tell you “don’t expect business as usual.”

The second category of inspiration on the website concentrates on openness, innovation, and changing the world. Key phrases include “open minds, collaboration, and of course innovation.” You will also find the phrase “there’s plenty of open space — and open minds” (obviously perfect sentence structure isn’t a high priority either). Finally, they promise to “give you a license to change the world” and “be inspired.”

Its focus on inspiration is so strong that for a tech firm, there is a surprising lack of technology-speak on the page. You will not find blogs, videos, or any mention of Apple’s availability on Twitter or Facebook easily. When it comes to mobile access, the site will render fine on the latest smartphones, but receives a 1.51/5.0 with regard to meeting mobile standards. If you visit the site, you might even find links that don’t work and features that load very slowly. What you will find is inspiration — loads of it.

I’ll leave you with this introductory statement from its career site:

“There’s the typical job. Punch in, push paper, punch out, repeat. Then there’s a career at Apple. Where you’re encouraged to defy routine. To explore the far reaches of the possible. To travel uncharted paths. And to be a part of something far bigger than yourself. Because around here, changing the world just comes with the job description.”

Next week, Part 3: Employer branding, recruiting, retention, and other talent management approaches to copy and learn from.

Talent Management Lessons From Apple… A Case Study of the World’s Most Valuable Firm (Part 3 of 4)

Want to impress your CEO? Few CEOs wouldn’t mind having the innovation track record of Apple, so there is probably no quicker way to become an “instant hero” then by learning how Apple’s talent management practices have contributed to its success and applying those practices relevant to your organization. In this installment of the case study, we’ll look at internal branding, employer branding, and recruiting.

Internal Brand Encourages Fighting the Status Quo

Steve Jobs and the management team at Apple have worked tirelessly to build a unique internal brand image at Apple that positions employees (at least mentally) as revolutionaries and rebels. Many years ago the organization influenced this internal brand by challenging employees to think how much more exciting it would be to be a pirate, rather than someone who followed the formal protocol of the regular Navy. It even flew a pirate flag over its corporate headquarters. The tradition of being revolutionaries is upheld even today with many supportive slogans including “Part career, part revolution.”

Apple is well known for using T-shirts, parties, and celebrations to build cohesion and to reinforce the internal brand as a ragtag group of revolutionaries. By getting employees to view their role as attacking the status quo, it helps to spur continuous and disruptive innovation. It has been successful in maintaining that internal brand image despite the fact that the top-down approach and intense secrecy run counter to its hatred of bureaucracy and all things “too corporate.” The external image further supports the internal brand.

You Can Have a Strong External Employer Brand Without an Employer Branding Program

Many among us dream of working at Apple, but unlike Google and Facebook, it’s pretty difficult to find out what it’s actually like to work there. A quick search on the Internet reveals that apart from a few alumni, most who have roamed the halls are pretty tight-lipped about their experience. While that silence is probably largely driven by Apple’s widespread use and vigilantly enforced non-disclosure agreements, even the corporation itself is relatively mum. You won’t find a great deal of employment advertising or find the Apple name on any one of a dozen or more best-company-to-work-for lists covering the technology sector, even though competitors like Google, Microsoft, and Intel are regularly listed.

Despite the silence, most would agree that Apple has a great “employer brand image”; Universum ranks Apple No. 10 among global engineering companies. The lesson to be learned is simple: use management practices that support your desired brand and elaborate brand management work will be unnecessary. Get your potential applicants to admire your firm for who and what the firm does by being the admirable firm.

Your Product Brand Should Serve Double-duty as Your Employer Brand

Instead of spending millions on building an employer brand, Apple lets its product brand do all the talking. Apple works hard on building and maintaining its product brand, which is ranked as the #1 global brand according to BrandZ ranking. Although product brand messages are intended primarily for customers, the messaging which emphasizes innovation and thinking differently also hasa major impact on potential applicants and employees. The logic is that if your organization lives up to its product promises, then it is natural to expect that the company’s jobs would also live up to the firm’s brand promise. In their minds, potential applicants make the connection between great products and a great place to work. In addition, because Apple’s products are talked about by everyone, there is a lot of brand association power lauded on those who work at Apple.

This public awareness and admiration can, coupled with a strong employee referral program, make generating a high volume of quality applicants easy. That same attention and curiosity will also enhance a firm’s retention rates because your employees will realize that the public sees them as collectively changing the world. Having employees believe that they are likely doing “the best work of their lives” is a powerful situation that most companies can’t easily mimic.

Being a Most-admired Firm May Be Enough

Apple does receive some notoriety in the press as the world’s “most admired firm.” In fact, Apple has been No. 1 for four years running on the list. That is an amazing feat. Apple dominates this list by being ranked first in eight out of the nine possible ranking factors. Those eight categories include factors that impress potential applicants, including people management, quality of management team, innovativeness, and social responsibility. The most admired list is based on the perceptions of business people and executives, something that Apple excels at managing. Having your firm admired garners enormous publicity in addition to increasing employee pride, engagement, and retention. The lesson to be learned by other firms is that if you don’t offer great benefits (which Apple doesn’t) you can get the same or even larger impact if you manage the perceptions of executives at other firms.

We want our people to be on the leading edge, so that everyone wants them… and then we must treat them right so they will stay, no matter what offers come along! –Apple Senior Manager

Aggressively Recruit the Best From Other Firms

The pirate-raiding mentality at Apple certainly carries over into recruiting. Apple has a long history of recruiting away top talent from other firms. In fact, the development of its iPod probably wouldn’t have occurred if it wasn’t for importing external talent from firms that didn’t appreciate the value of this new technology. Steve Jobs himself has been known to get directly involved in recruiting top talent. Apple has a top-grading type philosophy in that it targets top performers. Jay Elliot, its former VP of HR, cites one of Apple’s core principles as: ”Always… hire the best  ’A’ people. As soon as you hire a B, they start bringing in Bs and Cs.”

Apple’s recruiting approach is evolving because it has recently imported a team of recruiting leaders from Electronic Arts, but historically, despite the aggressive philosophy, its recruiting methods were pedestrian. It uses job boards and has an employee referral program that has paid up to $5,000, but its candidate experience is far from perfect. Glassdoor users rate Apple interviews 3.0/5.0 with regard to difficulty. Its college recruiting effort isn’t exceptional, with the exception of using recent college hires to help recruit the new crop. The key lesson for other firms to learn is that you can generate huge volumes of high-quality applicants if your firm is highly admired and if potential employees believe that they will be working on leading-edge products that everyone will be talking about.

In the retail group, there are two notable recruiting practices. The first has been the naming of the “Genius Bar,” where technical support is provided. Many applicants and employees in the retail area seem to be willing to put up with the relative drudgery of retail work simply for the opportunity to someday work their way up to becoming certified as a “genius.” The second is the use of employee referral cards that are well-designed and powerful. They reinforce the companywide focus that originated with Steve Jobs on recruiting the best from other firms. Recruiters and employees who witness great customer service at other retail and customer service outlets hand the card to those few individuals who provide impressive service. The front of the referral cards say “You’re amazing. We should talk.”

The back praises the individual and their work with a near perfect narrative … “Your customer service just now was exceptional. I work for the Apple store and you’re exactly the kind of person we’d like to talk to. If you’re happy where you are, I’d never ask you to leave. But if you’re thinking about a change, give me a call. This could be the start of something great.”

Next week, Part 4: Apple’s approach to training and development, management, leadership, and other difficult-to-categorize talent management lessons to learn from.

Talent Management Lessons From Apple… A Case Study of the World’s Most Valuable Firm (Part 4 of 4)

The purpose of this case study was not to say that you should copy everything Apple does, but rather to point out that with relentless execution and focus on key factors even a firm near bankruptcy can fight its way back to the top. In 13 years Apple has transformed itself from an organization of the verge of collapse to the world’s most valuable firm, amassing a phenomenal innovation record in the process. While Apple’s approach wouldn’t work for every firm, there are lessons to be learned that can influence program design regardless of industry, firm size, or location.

In part 4 of this case study (here’s parts 12, and 3) on talent management lessons, the attention is on development practices, role of management, and inspirational leadership.

Make your employees “own” their learning, training and development — because Apple frequently produces new products requiring expertise in completely different industries (i.e. computers, music devices, media sales, and telephony), its employee skill set requirements change faster than at almost any other tech firm. While there is plenty of training available, there is no formal attempt to give every employee a learning plan. Just as with career progression, employee training and learning are primarily “owned” by employees. The firm expects employees to be self-reliant. Its retail salesforce for example receives no training on how to sell, a practice that is certainly unconventional in the retail environment. The lesson is simple: providing target competencies and prescribing training can weaken employee self-reliance, an attribute problematic in a fast-changing environment. Employee ownership of development encourages employees to continuously learn in order to develop the skills that will be required for new opportunities.

Make managers undisputed kings — Apple is not a democracy. Most direction and major decisions are made by senior management. “Twenty percent time” like that found at Google doesn’t exist. While in some organizations HR is powerful when it comes to people management issues, at Apple, Steve Jobs has a well-earned reputation for deemphasizing the power of HR. Although Apple was the first firm to develop an HR 411 line, I have concluded that most of the talent management innovations at Apple emanate from outside of the HR function. There is a concerted effort to avoid having decisions made by “committees.” Putting the above factors together, it is clear that at Apple, managers are the undisputed kings. The resulting decrease in overhead function interference, coupled with the increased authority and accountability, helps to attract and retain managers that prefer control. Unfortunately, concentrating the authority has resulted in having some managers being accused of micromanagement and abusing team members.

Having a product focus drives focus, cooperation, and integration – Apple is notably famous in the business press for its “product-focused” approach (versus a functional or regional focus). Everything from strategy to budgets to organizational design and talent management functions are designed around “the product.” One of the primary goals of talent management is to ensure that the workforce is focused on the strategic elements that drive company success. That focus can be distracted with selfish or self-serving behavior that instead shifts the emphasis to the individual, a business function, a particular business unit or even a region. Although deciding to have a product focus is normally a business decision, it turns out that Apple’s strong product focus also has significant positive impacts on talent management.

This laser focus on producing a product makes it easy for everyone to prioritize and focus their efforts. A product focus is so powerful because it’s easy for employees to understand that final products can never be produced without everyone being on the same page. A product focus increases coordination, cooperation, and integration between the different functions and teams because everyone knows that you can’t produce a best-selling product without smooth handoffs and a lack of silos and roadblocks. With a singular focus on producing product, there is simply less confusion about what is important, what should be measured, what should be rewarded, and what precisely is defined as success. A product focus increases the feeling of “we’re all in this together” for a single clear purpose: the product.

Apple purposely offers only a relative handful of products, so employee focus isn’t dispersed among hundreds of products as it is at other firms. By releasing products only when it can have a major market impact, Apple essentially guarantees that every employee can brag that they contributed to an industry-dominating product that everyone is aware of. This focus on product helps to contribute to employees feeling that they are “changing the world.” This focus may also reduce the chance that employees will notice that the day-to-day work environment with its politics and the required secrecy may be less than perfect. And because Apple is no longer a small firm, with nearly 50,000 employees, a unifying and inspiring theme is required to maintain cohesion and a single sense of purpose.

Find a passionate and inspirational leader — although Steve Jobs is no longer the CEO, no analysis of Apple would be complete without mentioning his importance in the firm’s success and the design of its talent management approach. He influenced nearly every aspect of the talent management approach. Not only is he one of the highest-rated CEOs by the public (he is ranked number three on the glassdoor.com list) but as a role model, he has had a huge impact on innovation, productivity, retention, and recruiting. His value is indisputable. The day after he resigned, Apple’s stock value fell by as much as $17.7 billion. It is too early to tell whether the new CEO, Tim Cook, who is markedly less inspirational, will be able to maintain the momentum that Jobs created. He has already shifted some executives and changed the company’s philanthropy approach by instituting a matching gift program for charitable donations.

Other miscellaneous talent management issues — Apple executives are certainly in high demand at other firms that seek to be equally as innovative (for example, the head of the retail operation recently left to become CEO at JCPenney). Despite this demand, Apple certainly doesn’t have any significant turnover problems. You can, however, find plenty of negative comments about Apple on sites like glassdoor.com. Some describe Apple’s approach toward employees as a bit arrogant, and employees are certainly pushed to their limits. If you don’t “bleed six colors,” you simply won’t enjoy your experience at Apple for long. Although originally the firm emphasized employee recognition, it is not easy for those outside the firm to connect recent product successes to a single individual or team.

Apple is a team environment. Although many teams are forced to operate in isolation, that actually helps to build team cohesion. The competition between the different development teams is also intense, but that also helps to further strengthen cohesion. Like most engineering organizations, its decision-making model is certainly focused on data. Apple management likes to control all aspects of its products, but despite that, it is one of the best at using outsourcing to cover areas like manufacturing, which it has determined is not a core corporate competency.

Final Thoughts

Although Apple clearly produces extraordinary results, its approach to talent management is totally different than that of Google and Facebook, which also produce industry-dominating results. As Apple has grown larger, its rigor around sustainable innovation has grown as well, a feat that proves impossible for most organizations including the likes of HP, Microsoft, and Yahoo.

The three “big picture” learnings I hope you walk away from this case study with include:

  1. Focus on “the work” — it is management’s responsibilty to do whatever is necessary to keep work exciting and compelling.
  2. Strive for continuous innovation — Apple’s emphasis on being “different” is so strong that it can’t be overlooked by any employee or applicant. It delivers industry-dominating innovation levels because everyone is expected to.
  3. Deliver on your brand — Apple works hard to make sure that potential applicants, employees, and even competitors admire its products, the firm, and how it operates.

These three factors are not easy to copy, but they are certainly worth emulating. If you can bring them and the results that they produce to your firm, there is no doubt that you will be a hero.

Author’s Note: If this article stimulated your thinking and provided you with actionable tips, please take a minute to follow and/or connect with Dr. Sullivan on LinkedIn.

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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