Time Zone: Cupertino A year at Apple

Secretary of the Navy Tours with Industry (SNTWI):

These tours offer service members a chance to learn from and with leading industry partners to better improve leadership, management, and communication skills. Tours provide a valuable perspective to the civilian business world about the Navy, and in turn provide the service member with a unique look at civilian best practices. The following story was written by Lt. Cmdr. Sean Moody, Aircraft Launch and Recovery Equipment branch head, NAVSUP Weapon Systems Support (WSS) Philadelphia. The SNTWI program took him to Apple Headquarters last year.

By Lt. Cmdr. Sean Moody, Aircraft Launch and Recovery Equipment Branch Head
NAVSUP Weapon Systems Support Philadelphia

There were over 200 million iPhones sold in 2017. Over 500 million people visit the Apple app store every week. The new Apple Park campus is bigger in diameter than the Pentagon, and is powered by 100 percent renewable energy. Any company that can accomplish those feats must be streamlined, standardized, and systematic. Or so I thought.

Above: Veterans Day at Apple. From left to right: Maj. Gen. (Ret.) David Robinson, USAF; Gen. Lori Robinson, USAF-USNORTHCOM/NORAD; Capt. Evan Morrison, USN-Apple SECDEF Executive Fellow; Lt. Eva LaFiura, USN-Apple SNTWI Fellow; Tim Cook- Apple CEO; Lt. Cmdr. Aaron Dobson, USN-Apple SNTWI Fellow; Lt. Cmdr. Sean Moody, SC, USN-Apple SNTWI Fellow; Cmdr. Doug Beck, USNR-Apple VP Americas and Northeast Asia.

 

Last year, the Secretary of the Navy Tours with Industry (SNTWI) program took me to Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California. Apple places SNTWI fellows in full-time positions that align with their Navy designators. As a materials program manager, I drove material readiness for several Apple products, which essentially meant making sure the right parts were available in time for mass production. The role included work with cross-functional team members, early morning and late night phone calls with global partners, daily publication of status reports, weekly updates to leadership, and firefighting to resolve projected supply shortages.

Outside of those responsibilities, I had the opportunity to meet with people in different areas of the company to learn about their roles, speak with executives to understand their perspectives, and participate in special events like product launches in local retail stores. Over the course of the year, I got a sense of the ethos that drives the company, the cultural norms that guide behavior, and the ways in which employees embody the “Think different” tagline. Below are some takeaways from my year at Apple.

A succinct and lofty mission statement can focus and inspire. Apple’s mission is to “Make amazing products that enrich people’s lives, while leaving the world better than we found it.” That single sentence sets the stage for decision making at every level of the organization. Product quality and customer experience are understood throughout the company to be sacred priorities. Qualifiers like “amazing” and “enrich” turn a matter-offact statement into something exciting and idealistic.

When people believe in the mission, they will go above and beyond to achieve it. Apple employees work long hours, travel often, and are on call around the clock. They strive for perfection in every aspect of their work, and are proud to be part of a company whose values align with their own. Their connection to the company’s mission is constantly reinforced through the use of finished products that they help to produce.

Best practices aren’t always the best answers. Apple uses the phrase “avoiding common approaches or settling for ‘best practices’” to describe the sort of thinking it desires from employees. People are encouraged to do things however they think is best, so long as they understand the impact and can demonstrate why their way is better. Asking how problems should be solved is important for legal, regulatory, or ethical considerations. Once any necessary boundaries are set, asking how problems could be solved, then empowering people to explore those avenues, promotes creativity and innovation. Apple maximizes the “could.”

Organizational structure drives behavior. Apple is organized around subject matter expertise, not product lines. Functional organization is believed to promote quality and innovation: departments of experts push each other toward perfection, inspire each other to approach problems from new angles, and ensure the same expectations of excellence apply across all product lines. With one central budget, all departments and programs work toward the same bottom line, which creates the sense that everyone is part of the same team instead of being in competition for resources.

It is difficult – but possible – to counteract the organizational rigidity that comes with age and size. Apple employs hundreds of thousands of people, but it emphasizes a start-up mentality and takes steps to limit hierarchy: organization charts don’t exist, standard operating procedures are rare, communication flows in all directions, and productivity trumps formality. Of course there is structure behind it all, but the way the employees span boundaries, connect across groups, and value expertise over title makes the company feel flat.

Authority takes many forms, and formal authority has limitations. Apple trains its employees to understand that they will be accountable for many things over which they do not have direct authority. Without the power to dictate decisions, employees focus on their ability to influence decisions using informal authority: by demonstrating expertise, building relationships, and personifying the values of the organization. Even experts sometimes need real-time guidance. Business conduct training is mandatory, but Apple realizes that people may nonetheless encounter gray areas. The company staffs a 24/7 hotline that is not only for reporting misconduct, but is also for navigating questions or dilemmas. Knowing a lifeline is available makes people feel like the company has their back.

Military veterans are highly valued members of the team. While veterans don’t always start with the technical expertise of some other employees, they are known to bring leadership, resourcefulness, teamwork, and perspective, among many other attributes. The Apple Veterans Association is extensive, and the Inclusion and Diversity organization is working to increase veteran hiring.

Steve Jobs famously said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” I am extremely grateful to the Navy and the Supply Corps for affording me the opportunity to spend a year amongst those people, who make amazing products that enrich people’s lives.

Winter 2019