The Paradox of Power at Apple: Why Execs Fail When They Leave

How to Succeed at Apple and Fail in Business

Some notable executives who have worked for Apple fail when they leave and go to work for another company. Why does this happen? There's a very subtle, tricky effect going on here, the paradox of power at Apple, that I'll try to explain. I lived through it.


The environment inside Apple is hard to explain to outsiders. First, it is indeed a rather dictatorial environment from the top down. That's true whether the CEO is Steve Jobs or Tim Cook. Still, new VPs, when they're hired, often come into Apple with a preconceived set of notions and perhaps a little bit of exuberance about their VP power. However, if they use that power in the wrong way, they're finished.

What's tricky is that Apple's executive team expects performance in the winning infrastructure they've already set up. Failure to learn the Apple way and the mechanism of that power is punished quickly. I alluded to this in the Particle Debris of March 29. As Federico Vitocci tells the story, Steve Jobs would tell his new VPs, "Somewhere between the janitor and the CEO, reasons [for failure] stop mattering. That Rubicon is crossed when you become a VP."

And so new VPs get the idea that they've been completely empowered. But if their perceptions of the power conferred on them don't sync with the Apple way of doing things, they get into deep trouble. Quickly. The VPs that succeed are the ones who understand how to use the power conferred on them to achieve great Apple things. The ones who fail are the ones who misunderstand, misdirect and abuse the power given to them. That's exactly what went wrong with John Browett. This Apple management paradox drives most new VPs batty for the first year. If they survive that long.

The ones who have succeeded at Apple are deeply in the Apple framework of thinking. They both push and and get pulled along by Apple success. Then, when they go to another company, they're a fish out of water. Executives, already in place, with feet of clay block them. Practices and policies have already been baptized in the water of failure. Prodding the organization to succeed, in the tried and true Apple fashion, is like pulling teeth. JC Penny had set itself up for failure, and it was hard for Ron Johnson to improve the customer relationship.  I also believe that's what happened with Jon Rubinstein and Leo Apotheker. Even the brilliance of Mr. Rubinstein was bludgeoned to death and betrayed by Mr. Apotheker.

One shinning example is Tony Fadell. He started s small company where he was in charge and could institute the Apple kind of thinking. He didn't have a pre-established hierarchy to fight against.

I can't emphasize enough how tricky and subtle the VP paradox of power at Apple is. You must learn how to succeed in an environment where you don't have as much power as you thought you would have, as a VP, and yet you're expected to succeed, thrive and take full responsibility for what you've been hired to do. It's the focused and correct application of power that's elusive.

It requires a unique combination of intelligence, leadership and humility. A balance of power. And those traits don't translate well when those VPs leave and go to companies that have already set themselves up for failure by expecting that former Apple VP to act differently than he learned how to behave and succeed at Apple.

Not every VP hired by Apple can learn that finesse. And not every VP who succeeded at Apple can apply that success to other, ordinary companies and make it work in a failed or subpar infrastructure.

It's an amazing, under appreciated, seldom discussed paradox.


Tech News Debris for the Week of April 8

Tim Bajarin tells the story about how here's a big Flaw in Samsung's Mobile Strategy I think he's right. Plus, along the way, I've noticed that Apple's iOS and mobile strategy seems remarkably well thought out. Everyone else, who got caught off guard by Apple, threw things together to play catchup. Now they're paying the price with rethnking and restructuring their technology.

Here's a droll video story about the most infamous Apple Keynote. Specifically, the Gil Amelio presentation from Hell. You're gonna love it. Get comfortable for this one.

One often overlooked fact is that Windows 7 made great strides in OS security. According to Seth Rosenblatt at CNET Windows 8 security is even better. Well. That's. One. Thing.

Don't think we're in the Post-PC era? Take a look at "The PC market is a horror show right now." If PC sales really collapse, domino fashion, who will be the last man (truck maker) standing?

Of course, with its force field collapsing all around it, you'd think that Microsoft would be trying for a James T. Kirk miracle save. Apparently not: "Post-PC Microsoft signs its death warrant -- with an iPad."

Scotty! More Power! "Microsoft is working on a 7-inch Surface tablet." I can't wait to see the cardboard keyboard.

One of my A-list writers, John Kirk, takes a look at "Google's New Android Math Doesn't Add Up." The idea here is that "Numbers should be used to reveal, not conceal. And Android’s numbers aren’t revealing its strengths, they’re concealing its weakness."

After you listened to the echo chamber too long, all ideas about the mythical Apple HDTV all start to sound alike. So it was with cheer that another of my A-list writers, Ben Bajarin, took a fresh view of the future TV trends. "Thinking ABout The Future of TV All Wrong."

Finally, have you been feeling a bit unnerved during your dates lately? No problem. Google Glass to the rescue. "OK, cupid: giving your love life to Google Glass and the hive mind."

Gotta love that Droid love.


Particle Debris is a mix of John Martellaro's observations and opinions about a standout event of the week combined with a summary of articles that didn't make the TMO headlines, technical news debris. The column is published most every Friday except for holidays.


Exec image via Shutterstock.