Apple, Diversity, and Why It Succeeds

on June 10, 2013

Quite possibly, the single most important action undertaken by Tim Cook as CEO of Apple was when he fired Scott Forstall – so often referred to as “the next Steve Jobs.” There were likely many reasons for Cook’s move, but the overarching one is well-documented: Cook demands collaboration and Forstall was not known to share the glory nor the information. Cook would have none of it. He wants the company free of politics, fully focused on its mission, everyone working together.

Apple shows us again and again that to do the very best work, to make the very best products, to create something out of  nothing that magically appeals to everyone requires great people with a singular cause, a focused leadership, and unwavering faith in what they are doing.

Does this make Apple anti-diversity?

Absolutely not.

Tim Cook has said that the only pictures in his office are of Robert F. Kennedy,  a man who preached the benefits of diversity, and Dr. Martin Luther King – a man who helped change America’s views on so much, including how we value people who are different from ourselves.

Nonetheless, it seems current efforts to promote diversity within tech companies are doomed to failure. The companies that succeed in Silicon Valley are typically highly focused, comprised of people of highly similar backgrounds and educations – all focused on a singular mission.

The last great Silicon Valley success story, Facebook, came straight out of a Harvard dorm – chock full of well-to-do white males. It’s nearly impossible to be less representative of American society than that. Yet Facebook has a billion users around the world.

There are good reasons why so many of us believe there are societal benefits to diversity and inclusion, of course. Everyone of us benefits – culturally and economically – when everyone’s talents, creativity and dreams are afforded the opportunities to be fully realized.

But such larger social benefits fail to pass the results test when it comes to individual company success. Making Apple more “diverse” will not make it better. Walk into any Apple Store right now and see young and old, black and white, male and female all testing, using – coveting – the company’s many amazing devices. Apple’s success proves that mission and focus – not diversity – are what drives corporate greatness.

No, this does not mean we should not have nor promote diversity. Rather, we must acknowledge that change needs to come from outside. Efforts to promote computer programming for girls, for example, or to bring more people of color into STEM fields – these are worthy. Trying to enforce diversity policies inside a company is simply not the way to go.

Could Apple really do better if the picture below looked more representative of American society? That is a difficult case to make.

Apple Executive Leadership Team
Apple Executive Leadership Team

Apple is the world’s richest tech company. It has amassed the most cash. It makes the very best smartphone, tablet and laptop in the world. It is the global leader in personal computing. The company has over half a billion users and is growing, particularly in developing markets.

Would it be any more so if Apple’s leadership was, say, half women and/or 25% people of color? Would their products be any better? More appealing?

If you want a diverse workforce in Silicon Valley, and no doubt many of us do, then complaining about VCs not funding enough women, for example, of fretting that big tech companies aren’t hiring enough people of color will likely continue to fall on deaf ears.

Silicon Valley can absolutely adapt to change. That change, however, needs to come from the outside – and be data-driven.

We need to make more of those men and women who can propel Apple and Silicon Valley to continued greatness. That will – of necessity – demand a more diverse hiring pool to choose from. It’s simply wrong, however, to look to Apple HR, for example, or Sand Hill Road, to construct this path. That is not their mission.