Is Apple’s Secret Culture Really the Way to Go?

Source: Hachette Book Group

Apple has such a wonderful reputation and so much cool marketing that I was shocked to read details about its secretive corporate culture.

It flies in the face about everything I’ve been taught, believe and have seen work during my business career.

Consider these insights from Adam Lashinsky and his new book, Inside Apple:  How America’s Most Admired – and Secretive – Company Really Works.  Lashinky’s book excerpt recently appeared in Fortune.

•  “Yet the link between secrecy and productivity is one way that Apple challenges long-held management truths and the notion of transparency as a corporate virtue.”

•  “The new employees learn that first day of work that they’ve joined a different kind of company than any they’ve worked at before.  Outside, Apple is revered.  Inside, it is cultish, and neophytes are entrusted with only so much information.”

•  “It’s one thing to pressure employees to keep information from falling into the wrong hands.  Apple’s twist is that those wrong hands happen to include one’s own colleagues.  It is, in the words of a former employee, ‘the ultimate need-to-know culture.'”

•  “As with any secret society, trustworthiness is not assumed.  New additions to a group are kept out of the loop for a period of time, at least until they have earned their manager’s trust.”

•  “With silos being the norm at Apple, the surprise is the silos within silos.  ‘There are no open doors at Apple,’ said one former employee.”

•  “Almost nobody describes working at Apple as being fun.  In fact, when asked if Apple is a ‘fun’ place, the responses are remarkably consistent.  ‘People are incredibly passionate about the great stuff they’re working on,’ said one former employee.  ‘There is not a culture of recognizing and celebrating success.  It’s very much about work.'”

Adam Lashinsky shares some additional thoughts in this video:

Of course, every company and organization needs some level of secrecy and information compartmentalization.  And yes, rigidly protecting product launch details from the competition and other outside prying eyes is the right thing to do.  But keeping team members in the dark about what they’re working on and what the ultimate objective is?  And not trying to leverage the power of a team that’s all pulling in the same, known direction?  It just feels wrong to me.  It’s really tough to argue with Apple’s success.  Still, it doesn’t mean this is the way to go for the rest of us!

Coincidentally, right after I read Lashinky’s book excerpt, I read a terrific piece on Mike Krzyzewski in Duke Magazine, written by Bridget Booher.  I’ve read his books and have written about him before, and the contrast between his leadership and teamwork philosophy and Apple’s secrecy was incredibly striking.

You may remember that Coach K missed most of the 1994-1995 season because he resumed coaching without proper rest and rehab after back surgery.  When he returned, he made changes.  Check this out:

“If you had a wheel, with spokes all coming out of the center, that was the way I ran my program,” he says. “I was the center of the wheel, and everything ran though me. When I was knocked out, when the center of the wheel goes, the wheel goes. Quite simply, this is how I changed. I built a new wheel, and I connected this point with that one and that one with this one. Some of them went through me. But you could take me out—are you getting the visual here?— you could take me out, and it would still work. Once I figured that out, it helped me immensely.”

Coach K added:

“It’s too easy to say that I micromanaged or didn’t delegate enough,” says Krzyzewski. “I don’t believe in the word delegate. I believe in the word empower. I was not empowering people before, but once I connected the spokes in a different way, it became everyone’s wheel. That’s why we’re so good now. We’re better than we were then. I’m better. And that will never happen to me again. More important, it will never happen to our program again.”

Everyone’s wheel.  I love it!  That’s the kind of organization I want to be a part of.  That fits with the way I like to manage, lead and coach; and the way I’d like to be led.

What do you think?  Send me your comments and reactions.


I’m a big fan of leveraging clear direction, teamwork, open collaboration and shared priorities to drive success in an organization.  There’s a time and place for secrets, but secrecy shouldn’t be the hallmark of the organization.  It’s tough to argue with Apple’s success, but I’d rather be on Coach K’s team every day of the week.

Harvey Chimoff is a hands-on marketing leader and business-wide collaborator who builds marketing capabilities in B2B/B2C organizations that drive customer success.

One thought on “Is Apple’s Secret Culture Really the Way to Go?

  1. Thanks for reintroducing this book, after read your blog I’m going to buy one and read through it. I’m very interested in Apple’s products, pretty much obsessed with them.
    I have been using iPhone since the first one came out in 2007, just like Steve Job said “change the world,” it did change the way we use cell phone, I think I will keep using iPhone for the rest of my life unless Apple change the name for iPhone at this moment.
    Move on, iPad, iMac and MacBook all these products just appeared in my life, and I can’t live without them. How successful of this company.
    Well, I’m just one of the billions Apple users all over the world, now more and more people curious how does Apple work? What is the inside of Apple looks like?
    Recently, I’m taking ethics communication class, we are learning about Religious, Utilitarian and Legalistic Perspectives. “Almost nobody describes working at Apple as being fun,” one former employee says “There is not a culture of recognizing and celebrating success. It’s very much about work.” Regard to the recent issue about Apple in China, people started to concern about how Apple treat their employees more.
    In this case, Apple is using Utilitarian perspective which is “An ethical standard which holds that ‘actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.” It seems like Apple care about money more than the employee, that’s not good. Since they are almost the richest company in the world, right now the primary job is repair the image, try to do more charity work, not only just making high technology and fancy design, but also need to make some good impact on the next generation.


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