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How I survived and thrived in Apple's legendary environment of super-secrecy

Post-Apple, when I started my own company, Inkling, I chose radical openness and transparency.

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I started at Apple fresh out of college in 2002. Steve Jobs had cultivated a strong and pervasive culture among its 7,000 employees. Like any twentysomething in his first job, I was easily imprinted: Everything I learned at work was interpreted as the universal standard for the way things are done. With no basis for comparison, Apple quickly set my professional defaults for culture, work ethic and management.

The journey toward authentic and effective leadership is a personal one. Although we typically talk about it as an issue of career development, authentic leadership comes through a process of self-discovery. Until we grow comfortable in our own skin, our insecurities hold us back. For me, the struggle to live by my own values started in high school and continued through college and my early career at Apple. Only after I had started my own company — and made some pretty terrible mistakes — did I start to lead with authentic confidence.

The struggle to fit in, rooted in insecurity, is universally familiar. While my upbringing was generally wonderful, it wasn’t straightforward. I’m gay, so those otherwise simple decisions like going to prom or how to hang with the guys often presented difficult value choices between telling a lie or being myself. Sadly, as a teenager, you’re already programmed to go for the lie.

That programming carried into my 20s. At Harvard, I fought to feel as smart as the people around me. And at Apple, where I spent the first eight years of my career, I fought to feel important in a culture that carefully separated those who were from those who weren’t. Like my hometown upbringing, my Apple career was mostly wonderful. But it wasn’t straightforward.

A peculiar culture

Apple was an unconventional experience. Take its culture of intense secrecy: Everyone obsesses over who knows what and when and how they came to know it. Whether employees are disclosed on certain projects determines which doors their badges can open and which meetings (even which portions of meetings) they can attend. Even within the company, employees were forced to sign project-specific NDAs in “disclosure meetings,” which provide an additional layer of psychological emphasis around the company’s expectations of secrecy. But it also reinforced the power structure: Everyone noticed who was in the room and, more importantly, who wasn’t.

This environment of secrecy produces an unwritten hierarchy of “haves” and “have-nots” within the company. For the “haves,” the hierarchy of disclosure is a way to exert influence and demonstrate power beyond one’s role or title. For “have-nots,” it’s a subtle but constant reminder of your rank.

To be sure, this culture of secrecy generates billions of dollars in real value for Apple’s shareholders. There’s no denying its merit and its reflection of the man who created the culture.

But values drive priorities, and no value can be reflected in a company’s culture without making trade-offs. Apple is no exception. Its legendary secrecy led to information silos, discouraged cross-functional knowledge sharing and created a rigid definition of roles that discouraged individuals from expanding their professional horizons.

Reality shift

Apple was a remarkable place to spend my formative professional years, but it wasn’t until I left to start my own company that I began to recognize that some of the default settings I had adopted were at odds with my own values.

At first, 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.

At Apple, I had often felt a nagging sense that something was broken about my own behavior. At times, I had felt like a black sheep attempting to play the political game, guard information and obey the silos. Other employees seemed naturally adept at playing things to their advantage. But the culture, or perhaps just my perception of it, always brought me back to these behaviors.

Post-Apple, it took time for me to recognize that the discomfort was a byproduct of the incompatibility between my innate values and my default behaviors. In a sense, I was a victim of a corporate Stockholm syndrome: I instinctively flinched at the notion of sharing secret information or speaking to media about unfinished products. It took time to trust my teammates and to share openly, even in a small internal group.

But a great sense of relief began to emerge as I found my footing. I wanted to share openly. I wanted to invite everyone in our small company to participate in difficult decisions. I wanted to share our vision with external stakeholders and make bold assertions to journalists. I wanted to be myself, unapologetically.

Authenticity, consistency, efficacy

Leaders fail for a huge array of reasons, but a common thread exists among those who succeed: They are consistent and decisive. When we trust our instincts, we are listening to our authentic self. That authenticity breeds consistency since our internal voice tends to follow a set of core values. By contrast, a leader who isn’t confident in his instincts will delay decisions and vacillate in the presence of opposing opinions. An imagined external standard for values distracts leaders from listening to their own authentic set.

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. Discovering them is hard, and obeying them is even harder. But discovering and following your own internal compass — and not emulating an external standard — will bring you to a place of leadership authenticity. And leadership authenticity is a necessary ingredient for business success.

Matt MacInnis is the founder and chief executive officer of Inkling. He founded Inkling in 2009 on a mission to make the world smarter with mobile technologies, and has built it into the market leader in workforce enablement. Today, Inkling helps enterprises manage and enable their globally distributed workforces. Before Inkling, MacInnis spent eight years at Apple, where he ran the company’s education market development organization, based in Beijing. He subsequently returned to Apple’s California headquarters to coordinate Apple’s growth in education globally. Reach him @stanine.

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