Lessons from Cupertino: Relationships and Culture

Several weeks ago, I introduced a new series, focusing on three key themes I absorbed in my time at Apple. Team we talked about already; today, we come to Relationship, with Focus soon to follow.

The first thing to understand about relationships is that each one is a learning experience. It doesn’t matter if the relationship in question is with a customer, your boss, a customer support person, or anyone else—everyone has the opportunity to teach you something you didn’t know. You always have the chance to broaden your perspective with anyone you may meet.

At Apple, we cherished this. We led with the relationship first, inside and outside of the organization. There was a respect between sales and software engineering; there was a relationship formed by hardware engineering professionals and the sales organization. Even from a personal standpoint, I had relationships with people who had nothing to do with sales—the opposite of what’s oftentimes seen in sales organizations today. It’s as if all of the salespeople involved with a company are put in a glass cube and everyone else looks and points, “Oh, those are the salespeople over there and we are ‘corporate’ over here.”

In a lot of ways, Apple’s culture was all about relationships. Now, a lot has been said about Apple’s culture over the years. It was special, it was a cult, it was [fill in the blank]. But here’s the truth: Apple’s culture was one where you could always raise your hand and you would always be listened to (even if sometimes you got shot down). And ultimately, since we were looking to take people to places that they had never been before or dreamed of, it was important for us to have a laser focus, if you will, on the details. Apple was, as a company, based on excellent wordsmithing—we said what we meant and meant what we said. This made the company unique.

Sales culture today has gotten away from this. As businesspeople, we are so focused on being everything to everyone that it is sometimes impossible for culture to be formed, honed, and sustained. You simply cannot implement culture if you are trying to be a jack-of-all-trades rather than zeroing in on your particular set of values.

For instance, at Apple, I always felt empowered to tell the truth. I was never ashamed or upset to tell someone, “Apple is not the right solution for you.” Do people look at me like I am nuts when I tell them this? Absolutely. Could I have forced a sale in an effort to meet my quota? Sure. But regardless, my ability to tell someone the truth and call it like I saw it helped me achieve success in the long run.

This is the attitude that Apple was founded upon. This is the culture we maintained. And again, it all hinged on relationships—the idea we weren’t out there to just sell our wares to an unsuspecting public. Not at all. And if that had been our prerogative, I can tell you that Apple wouldn’t be known as the most valuable company in the world the way it is today.

Instead, the entire team at Apple was looking to be known as a trusted partner to our customers. It was this cultural intent that placed me in a position of import with the people and partners that I worked with. It made me matter.
Case in point: There were many times that I was invited and called into a meeting where there were no other vendors or outside business parties allowed. Why? Because my customers knew that they would receive the straight truth from me if I was involved—they would receive analysis and answers and not sales speak.

Was I there to sell something? Yes. Was it the right time to do so? No.

This mentality, however, was something that just didn’t spring into existence from out of nowhere. Absolutely not. It was developed and promoted from the very top at Apple—from Steve himself.

Steve was quick to point out that Apple products were not always the right products for every single person shopping the market. What we had to be, he said, was at the top of people’s minds—that they wanted at least to listen to our story. And this made us, from a cultural aspect, the little engine that could.

Sadly, I think even Apple has drifted away from this relationship-first approach, as evidenced by the battery cover-up fiasco of yesteryear. But I will still maintain that Apple is at its strongest—indeed, that every company is at its strongest—when it views customers and employees alike not as assets to be exploited but as relationships to foster. When you work on cultivating that kind of relational goodwill, that’s when you earn someone’s trust and loyalty over the long term.