Assholes in Business: Is Apple A Relevant Case Study?

One of the prompts for this series of posts was picking up a book at a newsstand in an airport on what it takes to be successful in running an organization. No, the irony of that is not lost on me.

The book in question was “Inside Apple“, by Adam Lashinsky. Recently published, it is subtitled “How America’s most admired – and secretive – company really works. Lashinsky, an editor at Fortune magazine, spent an extensive period of time researching in order to understand how the organization works.

The book is current, and deals with the succession questions raised by the departure and then death of Steve Jobs, and the ability of Apple to continue to be successful in the aftermath. What is most fascinating for me in reading the book, however, was the exploration of the culture of the organization, and the processes by which it works.

Without question, a lot has already been — and will continue to be — written about Steve Jobs as an individual. Explorations of the company are harder to come by. Partly that is because Steve Jobs was the public face of Apple. The degree to which other executives were restricted from communicating to the press or being visible in public is extraordinary. The rest of the company, by contrast, is largely opaque, and that is just how Apple likes it to be.

Lashinsky’s book in part tries to offer insights into what makes Apple so successful, and what other organizations may need to do to emulate that success. Could there be another Apple, he asks? Possibly. There is no reason why not. Would you want to build one? Or do you have to in order to attain that level of success? That is a different question entirely.

As described by Lashinsky, the culture in Apple is at turns comprised of arrogance, fear, secrecy and paranoia. Security is taken very seriously, and those that leak secrets face not just termination but prosecution; this is one of the things you learn on your first day, and Apple would probably consider it to be the most important lesson. Newcomers need to earn trust, and often do not know the projects they are working on — or the work that their team-members are involved in — when they join the company. Information is routinely distributed on a strictly ‘need to know’ basis.

Apple is not described as a fun place to work, but it is considered a meaningful one. It is also a very focussed one. People do not play, they work. Meetings begin and end on time. Communications are harshly critical, and people engage in heated debates and arguments. The view is that high-performance teams should be at each other’s throats, and that you don’t get the best solution without aggressively advocating for a position. Conflicts are aggressive and personal.

While the company is inarguably successful, and its focus on the minutest details of the customer experience — from buying their products, to unpackaging them, to their day-to-day usability — has produced a huge and incredibly loyal customer base, what it takes to do that appears to live somewhere between superhuman and inhuman. They are a large company that is deliberately structured to maintain the feel of a start-up culture. They expect long hours, total dedication and absolute focus on your area of responsibility – while keeping you from getting into anything that isn’t your specific job.

The organization has quite literally been designed around one person: Steve Jobs. Its structure was developed so that he didn’t have to deal with the things that he didn’t enjoy, and could obsess — to a degree that is as impressive as it is troubling– on those things he enjoyed and did incredibly well. The reward has been, since his return in 1997, phenomenal growth, amazing financial results and customer loyalty that most organizations cannot even fantasize about.

The big question is, would you want to work there? If you were Steve Jobs, then there were probably few jobs better. If you were not Steve Jobs, then there was a great deal that you had to not mind, give up on or let go of to work for Steve Jobs. For those that work there, this may or may not have been a conscious trade-off. But it was a trade-off.

Going back to the original question posed in my previous post, “Do you have to be an asshole to succeed in business?” In the example of this iconic organization, one can certainly make an argument that it helped.

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