An HR Lesson From Steve Jobs: If You Want Change Agents, Hire Pirates

Why? Because pirates can operate when rules and safety nets break down.


[The following is an excerpt from What Would Steve Jobs Do?: How the Steve Jobs Way Can Inspire Anyone to Think Differently and Win by Peter Sander (McGraw Hill)]


“It’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy.” This quote, made back in the days of the original Mac development team, says a lot about how Steve viewed people and selected them for teams. It also speaks to the kind of team and team behavior he admired. To build a team, all organizations seek the best and the brightest people, particularly for their innovation and new product development organizations–that’s not what’s in question here. By seeking out the pirates, Steve took the idea a big step further.

Why pirates?

A pirate can function without a bureaucracy. Pirates support one another and support their leader in the accomplishment of a goal. A pirate can stay creative and on task in a difficult or hostile environment. A pirate can act independently and take intelligent risks, but always within the scope of the greater vision and the needs of the greater team.

Pirates are more likely to embrace change and challenge convention. “Being aggressive, egocentric, or antisocial makes it easier to ponder ideas in solitude or challenge convention,” says Dean Keith Simonton, a University of California psychology professor and an expert on creativity. “Meanwhile, resistance to change or a willingness to give up easily can derail new initiatives.” So Steve’s message was: if you’re bright, but you prefer the size and structure and traditions of the navy, go join IBM. If you’re bright and think different and are willing to go for it as part of a special, unified, and unconventional team, become a pirate.

Pirates With Passion

Steve looked for the pirate in all his team members. But it wasn’t enough just to be brilliant, and it wasn’t enough just to think different. Steve’s pirates had to have the passion, the drive, and the shared vision to want to delight the customer with a perfect, game-changing product. Steve was constantly worried that as Apple grew, it would become like other big companies: tied up in bureaucracy, with a hundred reasons why something couldn’t be done. Pirates with passion would not let this happen. In keeping with this idea, Steve wanted his pirates not only for the product development organizations, but also for routine business functions like accounting and even his administrative assistants.


As Steve told Fortune editor Betsy Morris in 2008: “When I hire somebody really senior, competence is the ante. They have to be really smart. But the real issue for me is, Are they going to fall in love with Apple? Because if they fall in love with Apple, everything else will take care of itself. They’ll want to do what’s best for Apple, not what’s best for them, what’s best for Steve, or anybody else.”

Well-Traveled Pirates

Steve Jobs placed a lot of value on having a diverse organization, and on choosing individuals with diverse backgrounds and sets of experiences, like his own. Steve never finished college–not even his first year. But he was able to synthesize his own interests and experiences, from electronics hacking to Zen Buddhism to calligraphy, add three heaping scoops of passion, and become what he became. He felt that others should do the same.

When selecting team members, Steve looked for the same breadth of background and experiences. A good technologist is a good technologist, but one with interests in philosophy, the arts, literature, and such really moved the needle. He also liked entrepreneurship and signs of success at other endeavors. People who show the ability to get things done in other fields, to synthesize their experiences, and to take a broader view of the human experience are more likely to be the pirates that Steve was searching out. In a March 2011 iPad event, Steve told us: “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. That it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”

You Can Find a Pirate Anywhere

Not surprisingly, as Steve Jobs looked for people with diverse backgrounds, he would look everywhere. He was known to recruit the friends and acquaintances of his existing team members, feeling that they were most likely to fit with the team and share many of the same values. Apple doesn’t do a lot of outbound recruiting–these days it doesn’t have to, but even in the old days, people were just as likely to be found through happen-stance and connections as through formal recruiting efforts. Even John Sculley was brought to Steve’s attention by two of Steve’s early Stanford recruits.

Once a contact was made with a prospective pirate, the interview was likely to depart from the norm. It wasn’t your typical engineering interview. Diverse, seemingly off-task questions often bring diverse answers, and Steve was known to rely not so much on what people said as on how they said it, and on the meta-data that came in around the actual answer. Again, from the Fortune interview: “Recruiting is hard. It’s just finding the needles in the haystack. We do it ourselves and we spend a lot of time at it. I’ve participated in the hiring of maybe 5,000-plus people in my life. So I take it very seriously. You can’t know enough in a one-hour interview. So, in the end, it’s ultimately based on your gut. How do I feel about this person? What are they like when they’re challenged? Why are they here? I ask everybody that: ‘Why are you here?’ The answers themselves are not what you’re looking for. It’s the meta-data.”


So, in Steve’s book–recruit a team of diverse, well-traveled, and highly skilled pirates, and they’ll follow you anywhere.

Buy the book here.

[Top image: Georg Preissl/Shutterstock; Dice: Fer Gregory/Shutterstock; Passport stamps: Solid/Shutterstock]