A B-School Dean Nurtures Jobs’ Legacy

As Apple adjusts to life without its iconic founder, a former business school dean will play a crucial role in helping to maintain the culture of innovation, excellence and risk taking that Steve Jobs crafted for the company he loved.

For the past two and one-half years, former Yale School of Management Dean Joel Podolny has been helping Apple collect and preserve the ideas, values and beliefs of its charismatic founder to prepare for the day when Steve Jobs would no longer be around. Podolny was personally recruited by Jobs himself in 2008 to create and run Apple University with the expressed purpose to teach company executives and managers to think like Jobs.

“Steve was looking to his legacy, a former Apple executive told the Los Angeles Times, which has run a fascinating article today (Sept. 7) on Jobs involvement in his recruitment and Apple’s training program. “The idea was to take what is unique about Apple and create a forum that can impart that DNA to future generations of Apple employees. The executive spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve his relationship with the company, the Times reported. “No other company has a university charged with probing so deeply into the roots of what makes the company so successful.”

Podolny, the Times reported, recruited leading business professors including Harvard Business School historian Richard Tedlow with researching the company’s major decisions and the top executives who make them. Those executives — including Cook — have used those case studies to teach courses that groom the company’s next generation of leaders, according to the article in the Times.

Analysts say Jobs drew inspiration for the university from Bill Hewlett and David Packard, whose greatest creation was not the pocket calculator or the minicomputer, but Hewlett-Packard itself. Hewlett and Packard famously set out their company’s core values in “The HP Way.”

“With Apple University, Jobs was trying to achieve something similar, people familiar with the project say,” the newspaper reported. “He identified tenets that he believes unleash innovation and sustain success at Apple — accountability, attention to detail, perfectionism, simplicity, secrecy. And he oversaw the creation of university-caliber courses that demonstrate how those principles translate into business strategies and operating practices.”

According to the Times, Apple first approached Podolny and other academics about five years ago, though the effort assumed greater urgency in 2008 shortly before Jobs took his second medical leave from Apple.

An accomplished scholar and administrator who taught at both Stanford and Harvard, Podolny is an economic sociologist who focuses on leadership and organizational behavior. From the first day he arrived at Apple in early 2009, his importance immediately became obvious. The former dean was moved into an office between Jobs and then chief operating officer Tim Cook, who has since succeeded Jobs as CEO. Jobs apparently was highly satisfied with his hire because Podolny was later named head of human resources for Apple.

“Podolny didn’t just study leaders; he became one. In 2005, at the age of 39, he left Harvard for the Yale School of Management where he rethought how the faculty taught future MBAs to better prepare them for the business world,” the Times said. “Yale scrapped its staid single-subject courses in marketing and accounting for more holistic, multidisciplinary programs that focused on “the employee,” “the innovator” and “the state and society.”

When Podolny quit his job at Yale to join Apple, his decision shocked many in academia. “The timing surprised everyone,” Stanford Dean Garth Saloner told the Times. “Deans are typically in these positions for significantly longer; a decade would not be an unusual term. He had gone to really put the Yale School of Management on a different trajectory and that takes time.”

The Times reported that Podolny recalled writing his first computer program on an Apple II and pulling an all-nighter to watch his Laserwriter print his undergraduate thesis at the rate of seven minutes a page.

“While there are many great companies, I cannot think of one that has had as tremendous personal meaning for me as Apple,” he wrote in a farewell note to Yale students.