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Is Apple's Culture of Secrecy a Liability? Five Ways to Transparency

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Being tight-lipped may be part of a brand. But sometimes a company takes its culture of secrecy too far. Apple may have now reached that point of no return.

Adam Lashinsky's new book, Inside Apple, reveals the sometimes bizarre and extreme culture of secrecy that flourished at Apple under Steve Jobs's watch.

There were the "lockdown rooms," which were erected overnight with frosted windows or no windows at all. The security badges, which allowed employees access to some rooms but not others. Security clearances that changed abruptly without explanation.

The company housed brilliant, hardworking engineers and designers given freedom to work on their specific piece of product development, but those people had no clue if or how their part of the product would be used. New hires were put on fake product assignments for months until they could be trusted.

Apple employees who talk to anyone outside the company about Apple's activities risk termination. And, in many cases, workers aren't even allowed to query people inside their own company. Lashinsky says it all here: "Under Jobs, a culture of fear and intimidation found roots throughout the organization."

Many industry experts speculate whether CEO Tim Cook can equal Jobs in taking Apple into the future. But maybe that's the wrong topic to be mulling over.

The real issue seems to be whether Apple's high-performing but secrecy-riddled culture needs an overhaul. If, as many people believe, Cook simply doesn't command the blind loyalty and commitment accorded the genius and charismatic Jobs, then I'd say the time for that overhaul is now.

Transparency, which along with integrity and commitment, is a component of most companies' cultural foundation, has been glaringly missing from Apple's inner workings. And it's this lack of transparency that's the basic cause of the fear -- of getting yelled at and even fired -- that has run rampant through the organization for about two decades.

Here's how Apple can get the transparency it desperately needs.

1. Transfer cult-faith into trust. Jobs liked having talented people work pretty much exclusively within the parameters of their expertise. Now that there's a new person at the helm, employees are more likely to wonder whether what they're doing represents the best use of time and resources.

With this prospect of dissent looming large, Apple's new leaders will need to define project parameters more explicitly to gain trust. This includes letting workers in knowledge-intensive fields work more autonomously, and giving committed employees a greater voice in how their work gets done.

2. Shine a light. To perform optimally, both managers and employees generally require context. They need to know how their work fits into the big picture, which allows them to identify barriers to success.

Rarely are employees so trusting that they're willing to work in the dark, without knowing these parameters. In other words, how many workers are willing to turn over these decisions to management? Turns out, at Apple there were quite a few. Jobs was, in fact, revered as a parental figure. However, with Jobs gone, Apple must expose more employee work processes to the light of day.

3. Uphold principles, not just standards. Apple became known for its "Apple way" of applying its standards across-the-board -- from product development to roll-out. This strategy helps shape expectations and is often a sign of a healthy corporate culture. But standards aren't enough.

Companies need to act according to its principles, which include making its employees feel valued and connected to the company's goals. Under Jobs's aegis, many Apple employees had set aside those intrinsic needs to toe the company line. The cost of this misplaced allegiance? Fear. Such skewing of natural inclinations for the good of the company may work intermittently but not long term.

4. Welcome questions. Under Jobs' reign, Apple employees had learned to work within very narrow channels. Within their workgroups and development teams, they felt a certain amount of security asking questions and challenging assumptions.

However, Jobs's acerbic personal style and secretive compartmentalization meant workers were hard put to ask questions outside the scope of their expertise or without a valid need-to-know. Apple's new leaders need to trust its employees are savvy enough to ask appropriate questions -- and not have to fear reprisals when asking them.

5. Keep an open-door policy. Apple's new leaders can't afford to become isolated. Good managers have a knack for balancing being connected with those above and below them.

Not surprisingly, many Apple managers mimicked Jobs's secretive management style with their direct reports. But way more appealing to employees is being strongly connected to their department heads and colleagues.

It's unlikely Steve Jobs is at risk of losing his iconic stature any time soon. But given the choice, employees would ditch working for an icon and opt instead for managers who've mastered the art of genuine nurturing those under them.

Apple, it's your move.