From Apple Employee to Startup CEO, a Founder Learns to Make His Own Culture

From Apple Employee to Startup CEO, a Founder Learns to Make His Own Culture

Writing at Recode, Inkling founder and CEO Matt MacInnis discusses how he discovered his own values as a leader when he left Apple after eight years to start his own company. In the beginning, he explains, he attempted to emulate the tech giant’s famous culture of secrecy, because he had seen it work so well for Apple, but soon began “to recognize that some of the default settings I had adopted were at odds with my own values”:

I did at Inkling what I had been trained to do at Apple: I strictly controlled information flow in and around our tiny organization. I had an aversion to speaking with media. I insisted that new employees sign strict NDAs. And I behaved as though our little-known brand and products were worthy of instant, outsized coverage. It was a tad nutty. …

My own move from middle management at Apple to executive leadership in a startup provided time for reflection and recognition of what is most authentic in me. While retaining some of the most valuable characteristics of Apple — a commitment to craftsmanship, strong top-down leadership and a devotion to hiring A-level players — I also forged an independent course. I found my own voice in radical openness and transparency, a hallmark of the Inkling culture.

We all eventually recognize that we don’t get to choose our core values. Rather, they choose us.

MacInnis’s experience both at Apple and as a founder speak to some of the core lessons of our latest research at CEB (now Gartner) into how organizations can effectively and design and manage culture.

His description of Apple, for instance, is a great illustration of the tensions and trade-offs that we discuss in our study. In Apple’s case, the tension he describes is between confidentiality and collaboration, but at other companies, it might manifest in a variety of ways. A manufacturing company might have a tension between safety and speed, while a company focusing on R&D might have a tension between innovation and cost-consciousness.

In our experience, all companies have tensions: It’s just a question of whether they acknowledge them or not. The tricky thing about dealing with tensions is that we can’t easily resolve them by just taking out one side. A manufacturing company needs to be safe and efficient. Our study provides a structured approach for heads of HR to identify these tensions and help employees learn to navigate them more effectively.

The author’s realization that he couldn’t easily port over Apple’s culture to his new company reflects another message from our study: That there is no “right” culture. Although culture vendors often sell the importance of a “culture of ____,” our data show that there is no particular type of culture that consistently outperforms others. The key is to find the culture that supports your organization’s strategy. Apple has a very influential culture that serves it well, but that doesn’t mean the culture is going to work for everyone. It’s incumbent upon leaders to figure out what type of culture is going to best enable strategic priorities going forward.

CEB Corporate Leadership Council member can read some of the key findings of our culture study here, while heads of HR and their direct reports can register for one of our upcoming executive briefings.