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

Oct 3, 2011

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 1, 2, 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 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 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.