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Why Apple's Tim Cook gets it Dead Right When Talking to Employees

Apple is a notoriously secretive company and fights hard to keep everything that goes on within 1 Infinite Loop under wraps. Former employees speak of locked rooms where only a select few could enter, of deliberately mis-leading job adverts for unannounced projects, and of mis-information being 'leaked' in order to find the source of real leaks.

It's something of a surprise then, that so many of CEO Tim Cook's memos to staff make it into the public domain. But it's fortunate for us that they do, because they provide a brilliant insight into Cook's management style and how he communicates with staff.

The most recent example was issued from Cook's office on 15 January and explained Apple's reasons for agreeing a settlement with the US Federal Trade Commission over a dispute about in-app purchases on the iPhone and iPad. 

It's not the content of the email that concerns us, though. It's the way it's written. Firstly, as always, instead of 'Dear Colleague' or some other frosty formality, Cook begins with the much friendlier 'Team.' This at once breaks down a barrier between the CEO and even the lowliest member of staff. It says 'we're all in this together, part of the same team, working for the same goals.'

Next is the use of 'I' and 'you.' Again it breaks-down those barriers. There's no reference to 'the company' though occasionally Cook will refer to 'we', 'the board', or 'the executive team' when he's talking specifically about those groups.

Cook then goes on to explain the issue and what Apple ('we') has done about it and why it's now settling. But where most CEOs of Fortune 500 companies would restrict themselves to providing information and trotting out well-worn PR tropes, Cook allows himself to give a personal opinion: 'It doesn’t feel right for the FTC to sue over a case that had already been settled. To us, it smacked of double jeopardy. However, the consent decree the FTC proposed does not require us to do anything we weren’t already going to do, so we decided to accept it rather than take on a long and distracting legal fight.'

Perhaps Cook is aware the memo will leak and is using the opportunity to make a point, but I think it's about something more important than that. He's saying to staff 'I share your disappointment about the FTC action. I agree with you.' Again, he's demonstrating that everyone at Apple, from CEO downwards, is on the same team. 

Finally, Cook reminds staff of what a great company Apple is and of everything it's achieved recently. That's a bit of PR puff, but works well because it's personalised. And, importantly, before signing off, he thanks staff for their hard work. When he does sign-off, it's with one word, 'Tim.' No formal 'yours sincerely' or anything like it. And no 'CEO' below his name. Just 'Tim.'

You could argue of course that it's just another example of a superficial company attempting to manipulate employees. I prefer to think that it's a CEO who understands the culture of the company. One who values his employees. And one who knows that if you want to keep staff happy, communicating openly, sincerely, and honestly is crucial.

You can read the memo in full on Re/code here

Image by Mike Deerkoski


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