Why Apple University Matters More Than Ever
(Company clarifies information in published reports.)
When Steve Jobs hired Joel Podolny in 2008 to create Apple University, the marching orders were to help the company do something it had never spent much time doing: Study itself.
Jobs had run the company much like a gigantic startup, enabling him to imprint his management philosophy on everything from product design to advertising. But with his cancer worsening, Jobs wanted Podolny, the well-known, youthful dean of the Yale School of Management, to create a program to distill his approach so Apple’s executives would be able to reinforce it after he was gone.
Working closely with Jobs, Podolny quickly built up a curriculum of courses, including one called "What Makes Apple Apple." Some courses were taught by top Apple executives such as Cook, according to Adam Lashinsky, author of “Inside Apple.” Other courses were built around case studies written by a faculty that includes Richard Tedlow, a Harvard University business historian.
Soon after Podolny arrived, he was promoted to vice president of Apple’s entire human resources department to fill a void left by Danielle Lambert, who resigned along with her husband Tony Fadell in late 2008. Apple University remained Podolny's main focus and passion, and he talked about his desire to be released from the larger HR job, said Bob Borchers, a former iPhone marketing executive.
Now with the promotion of Denise Young Smith to vice president of human resources this week, Podolny got his wish. And it comes at a crucial time if Apple is to maintain Jobs’s posthumous impact on the company. People who worked closely with Apple's co-founder have left for other jobs, such as Johnson, who left to become CEO of JC Penney months before Jobs died in 2011. Others are retiring, such as Rita Lane, an operations executive who oversaw development of Mac, iPhone and iPad accessories. And plenty of newcomers are arriving. Apple’s total headcount, including its legions of in-store “Geniuses”, has grown from 60,400 in September 2011 to more than 80,000 two years later.
Keeping its best people will become harder for Apple, said Jon Bischke, CEO of Entelo, an online-recruiting service. Part of the problem is unavoidable: As Apple downshifts from a hyper-growth company to slower-growing behemoth, talented employees are more easily lured to startups that promise bigger monetary rewards. If Apple doesn’t prove it can bring out world-changing products like the iPhone and iPad, as it routinely did during Jobs’s tenure, some of its engineers will keep an eye out for other hot companies that can, he said.
As with everything around Apple, the company keeps details of the program secret. According to Lashinsky, there was a course on Apple’s decision to consolidate all of its iPhone manufacturing to one factory in China, and another on the decline of A&P, once the dominant grocery chain in the U.S.
Apple spokeswoman Kristin Huguet declined to make Podolny available for an interview or comment on whether there would be any changes in Apple University as a result of the shake-up.
Fulfilling Jobs's vision for Apple University won’t be easy.
“Joel is a very creative guy, but it’s hard to create instant Steve Jobs,” said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, another Yale professor who worked with Podolny last decade.
“The essence of genius is that it’s a misfit quality. Misfits don’t fit well into institutionalized assembly lines.”
Also, Podolny is swimming against the tide in trying to increase the role of human resources within Apple’s no-nonsense culture, said Borchers, the former marketing executive. Unlike many companies that proactively develop executives’ capabilities by moving through many jobs, Apple has historically hired specialists in a given field and kept them there to fully exploit their expertise.
“Anyone trying to do HR stuff tended to get rejected by the antibodies,” Borchers said.