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Hiring at Apple for Culture Fit

The cultural or organizational fit of a candidate is a critical element in any hiring decision. Let’s look at Mark Papermaster, who left Apple just fifteen months after joining them from IBM.

Papermaster had been senior vice president for mobile devices at IBM and was hired to run the same business at Apple. After little over a year in his new position, he reportedly had a falling out with Steve Jobs, driven by a broader cultural incompatibility with the company.

Papermaster assumed his new position while Steve Jobs was out for medical reasons. When Jobs returned, Papermaster had not yet adapted to Apple’s corporate culture, where even senior executives are expected to keep on top of the smallest details in their areas of responsibility and often have to handle many tasks directly rather than delegating them.

A description of the Apple culture is readily available at the company's career website. Prominent statements include: “Part Career, Part Revolution," and “Less of a Job, More of a Calling.” The clincher at their website as far as Papermaster’s position was concerned is, “Shared Obsession with Getting Every Last Detail Right.”

Contrast the Apple descriptors with those at the IBM career website: “Build the Career You Want” and, “Work for a Company You Can Be Proud of.” Did the Apple executivess check this out? IBM talks about “your career” and Apple talks about, “passion” and “obsession” in the work you do.

I had a similar experience over focus on detail with an executive early in my own career when I was product manager for Kool-Aid at General Foods (now Kraft). In a rare meeting with the division president, he started by remarking on the current heat wave in the Midwest.

“It’s really hot in Omaha, Tulsa and Little Rock. That’s got to be good for our Kool-Aid business there. Jim, what is our latest Nielsen market share in the South Central Region? “

I didn’t have that on the tip of my tongue, so I replied, “We continue to dominate the South Central Region because A&P isn’t in there with their private label brand. Since it is our smallest volume region, I’ll have to get back to you with the latest market share report."

After that meeting, I memorized all the current regional market shares, which seemed pointless, but being prepared with that level of detail was part of the culture. Employees either had such qualities or learned to adapt quickly.

Interviewers need to match candidates with their corporate culture. With the right interviewing techniques they gain reassurance that necessary individual competencies or qualities are present. They do this by seeking patterns of repeat behavior.

Apple interviewers no doubt know their own company’s culture, but apparently no one discovered the cultural differences that may have influenced Papermaster’s performance at IBM. Had they done so, they might have seen that his management style, while successful at IBM, was decidedly different from that of Steve Jobs and the rest of the executive team at Apple.

Fifteen months of an executive mismatch could have been avoided if Apple interviewers had taken the time to articulate the required competencies needed to fit in their culture and then interviewed candidates for repeated evidence of these competencies.

For the past twenty-eight years, we have helped interviewers consider their corporate culture and identify competencies that may determine a candidate’s match. This increases the success rate of new hires and avoids the hiring of those who are unfit for their culture.

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