During the final years of his life, Steve Jobs became concerned with how to perpetuate his legacy and knowledge base inside the company. Interestingly, he didn’t place much emphasis on defining a formal company purpose.
Although he cared deeply that employees lived the company’s mission (he would often challenge leaders by asking them, “Is this what we’re put on this planet to do?”), the exercise of creating and communicating a formal mission or purpose statement held little interest for him. Jobs felt that if employees bothered to write down such a statement, the ideas it contained would lose their power. Employees would slap the statement up on the wall and forget all about it.
The closest Apple seems to have come to publicly disseminating a mission statement during these years was Chief Operating Officer Tim Cook’s apparently spontaneous disclosure of some basic principles informing Apple’s operations during a 2009 investor call. (These included the line: “We believe that we are on the face of the earth to make great products and that’s not changing.”) Jobs reportedly frowned on Cook’s disclosure, fearing that he’d made public the “secret sauce” behind the company’s success.
But Jobs had other ideas about how to perpetuate his legacy and a moral community by fostering a shared understanding of the firm’s reason for being (what he’d described years earlier as honoring “people with passion” and helping them “change the world for the better”). In 2008, a few years before he succumbed to pancreatic cancer, he started Apple University, an internal unit charged with developing course materials and running training programs that exposed employees to the company’s heritage.
As one former employee remarked, “Steve was looking to his legacy. The idea was to take what is unique about Apple and create a forum that can impart that DNA to future generations of Apple employees. No other company has a university charged with probing so deeply into the roots of what makes the company so successful.”
And yet, Jobs sought to design this forum in ways that would prevent people from reverting to veneration of “the good old days.” Having served on Disney’s board, Jobs was struck by how often leaders asked, “What would Walt have done?” To his mind, leaders deferred too often to the founder, a stance that impeded innovation. He coached his own successor, Tim Cook, to chart his own path rather than to constantly be asking what he, Jobs, would have done. And he wanted other employees at Apple to take a more critical and balanced approach as well.
Rather than pounding a crisply defined purpose into employees’ heads directly, or venerating every last profound utterance of Jobs, Apple University took a more indirect approach. As one observer put it, the company sought to convey not just a purpose but a “unique culture where people there believe they’re making the best products that change people’s lives.” To that end, Apple University asked employees to critically analyze a series of past actions and decisions undertaken by company leaders. Interpreting historical case studies, employees could deconstruct and contextualize Jobs’s decisions, considering how their underlying logic might or might not apply to situations they currently face.
Jobs wanted employees to perpetuate Apple’s purpose and core principles such as radical simplicity or thinking differently by immersing themselves in past decisions and their rationales. If they chose to deviate from any of those principles, they would at least understand the tradeoffs they were making. By fostering critical engagement with history, employees could stake out an intellectual space outside the past even as they exposed themselves to the company’s unique, purpose-infused culture. Perhaps from all this they would distill the company’s purpose and core values for themselves.
Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Ranjay Gulati and excerpted from his book DEEP PURPOSE. Copyright © 2022 by Ranjay Gulati. Shared here with permission from Harper Business, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers
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