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.

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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