Apple Executive Deirdre O’Brien Tells Us The Career Advice She Tuned Out

by Catherine Thompson
Originally Published: 
Courtesy of Apple

In Bustle's Quick Question, we ask women leaders all about advice — from the best guidance they've ever gotten, to what they're still figuring out. Here, Deirdre O’Brien, Apple’s senior vice president of people and retail, shares what she does to recharge, what she'd go back and tell her younger self, and the type of career advice she mentally tosses in the trash.

Apple executive Deirdre O’Brien was the only girl on her Little League baseball team growing up. She played a lot of other sports, too: soccer, volleyball, basketball, and golf. So when, on her first day at an Apple factory in California, her manager asked her to watch how the person who she’d be taking over from worked, she immediately recognized how good of a team player that person was.

“That's something that I love from — I played a lot of sports when I was a kid — that approach to being part of a team has always been something that really, really stuck with me,” she tells Bustle. “And forming connections to help make the work better. That dynamic was immediately created for me from my first day walking in Apple.”

O’Brien is an Apple lifer. The company recruited her as an undergraduate out of Michigan State University, and she put her supply chain management degree to work scheduling production lines at a factory that manufactured some of the OG Macintosh computers. In the 30 years since, she worked up to senior vice president of people, overseeing nearly 150,000 Apple employees.

This spring, O’Brien assumed oversight of Apple’s retail operations as well. That responsibility fits neatly into her portfolio, as it really boils down to managing the experience you have interacting with Apple employees when go to fix your MacBook’s hard drive or buy a pair of AirPods.

“You think of all the work we do at Apple to make our products really, really high quality, totally focused on the customer, that last link in a very long chain is the human interaction between an Apple retail employee and a customer,” she says. “So making sure that we show up and make that connection perfect and make that be a relationship that lasts a lifetime is really, really important to us.”

Here, O’Brien tells Bustle what her day-to-day looks like, what her productivity hacks are, and what you can do to be ready for the next career opportunity that comes your way.

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What do you do when you need to turn your brain off and recharge?

DO: I love to be outside. I run, hike, bike and I always do that before work. So I'm an early riser and I like to get out usually in the dark. I love the dawn. I can't help but be outside in the dark and I love to see the light come up. So I do that every morning and I also meditate every day, usually in the morning. And those things really ground me, energize me, and I feel like... I hop in the car and I'm heading to work and I'm really amped up and energized to take on the day.

What does your day-to-day look like?

DO: I'm really thoughtful about my schedule. I also like to make sure I leave time every day to... I get a lot of emails. So does Tim [Cook, Apple's CEO], by the way, from customers and employees because we really encourage a lot of communication and interaction. I always leave a chunk of my day to make sure I read all those notes and make sure I understand exactly what our customers’ experiences are. And then we make sure that we get back to that customer and we go ahead and work on making sure that we can adjust anything in our process to ensure that the experience gets better from that customer's interaction, and do that same [thing] with employee notes. So really trying to make sure I'm getting new input all the time, while I'm also working on our objectives that we've sort of set forth for ourselves.

Do you have any productivity hacks to share?

DO: For me, I try and first of all make sure I'm working with fantastic people. So while I do have a big responsibility, no one person does it alone. I have a fantastic team. So having a clear connection with my colleagues and my team members and clarity of purpose is really important. I'll call that a hack because I feel like you can do a lot through others.

I also find that that collaboration raises the level of the work and is constantly inspiring. So again, I find that interaction really moves things up in terms of ambition and focus on excellence. So that's number one. Number two, a big thing for me is the walking meeting. So I do a lot of meetings on the move. That's how I get my exercise in too, by the way, in the morning. Just moving along, getting things done.

What is the worst piece of career advice you've ever been given?

DO: It is really a tough one, because I think what happens is you end up throwing it out so you forget it.

I think anything that has to do with putting yourself before the team or the company's interest is something I've always immediately dismissed. And it does come up now and again. You will hear people give advice that's focused more on sort of the “I” or the “me,” focused on the person. And I think the best advice and the best approach is to focus on the team and the company.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

DO: If I could give myself advice, I'm going to go back to something that we talk about at Apple, which is the journey is the reward. And I think I would probably just tell myself, "It's going to be an incredible journey and you're going to learn so much. Enjoy the journey."

What do you feel you've learned from your career that other people can take something away from?

DO: When you think about the role that you're in, and I like to try and draw a circle around it — so think, "Okay, this is my job at Apple. It's my job to learn everything I can about that role and make sure I'm expert at that role, because that's the position I play." It's like a sports team or a symphony. There's a role that you play, and be the best you can at that role.

Then as you master that, you can develop even more in that role. When you start thinking of all the people you touch, the different teams you touch to make the work better, there's all of that opportunity to expand your circle. Learn what those people need from you to do better work. Forming those relationships, those collaborations, exchanging processes and ideas, that's all within your responsibility of your current job.

If you think about your job that way, you end up sort of growing so many different skills and forming so many more relationships that you end up with a much higher level of competency and skills that allows you to be ready for that next opportunity.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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