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

| Particle Debris

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.

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Your story about Apple and how it operates reminds me of the book “Built to Last.” I read it in graduate school and refer to it often when discussing a company’s failures. The common thread is that successful companies succeed because find what works and stick to it even if it means firing good people. They work at their own pace and challenge themselves at excellence. It is what has made Apple what it is today with the appearance of being a market innovator and leader where the only product that leads any market is the iPad.

Maybe the allegedly smart “analysts” should go back and read “Built to Last” to understand that when they day “Apple must do (something) to regain its stature,” they do not understand why Apple will be just fine long after these guys are gone!


That Apple HDTV article basically is saying open AppleTV to developers and then see what interesting uses they make of the combination of TV, iPad, and iPhone/iPod screens.  If Apple did release an AppleTV SDK, media companies can write apps targeting the TV screen similar to how they’ve made apps for the iPad.  If Apple focusses on getting several important ones on board they can launch with a solid collection of content.

Multi-screen usage, huh.  Well, there’s no point showing the same thing on both screens. So this could be something like watching sports on ESPN on the TV and viewing all the stats on the iPad.  It could be showing a listing of episodes on the iPad/iPhone like a TV guide and tapping one plays it on the TV.  It could include any number of interactive features where input comes from the mobile devices in the room but output shows on the TV screen.



Excellent article as always, and always something I look forward to at the end of every week. Great piece on Apple VPs.

As for the other articles you mention, I was most intrigued by Bajarin’s article on Samsung potentially copying Apple’s business model and using their own OS, while breaking free from Android. I found that interesting for the following reason:

When microcomputers (that’s what they were called before they were called PCs) exploded in the early 1980s, all the players made their own hardware and OSes: Apple, Atari, Commodore, Texas Instruments, Radio Shack, etc. Then the MS-DOS and IBM obliterated every computer on the market but the Mac. Since then, with the brief exceptions of Palm and RIM, has any company other than Apple pulled off the dual hardware-OS vertical integration anywhere near as well as Apple? Microsoft can’t even pull it off, given the dismal performance of Surface/Pro/Windows 8. I wonder why that is, and equally wonder if Samsung could pull it off.



Some very nice reads here. I particularly appreciate your analysis of the paradox of power. It translates into broader relevance across all sectors as every institution and entity has its own unique culture. One great lesson from history, which is often mangled by culture-centric and bigoted analysis which attempt to root the great modern cultures in only one part of the world, is that those cultures that had the competitive advantage over others and survived to comprise part of our current lives, is adaptability. These cultures explored their wider environments, and avidly imported customs, practices, behaviours and beliefs that appeared to confer a competitive advantage amongst those who practised them. These cultures saw the writing on the wall and proactively adjusted their courses to remain viable, and became the more robust for it.

If there is a unifying theme in your lineup, it is that of the power paradox and MS’s Johnny Evans’ piece on Post-PC MS signing its death warrant via iPad. MS refusing to make its flagship app available on the most rapidly growing tech sector (tablets) is beyond recalcitrance, and bespeaks a culture of denial, inflexibility, blindness and lack of adaptability. Such a culture augurs poorly for the development of modern competitive products, as they are more likely to reflect the corporation’s cultural malaise than to embrace and enhance a new reality - the very thing that that corporation denies and its culture appears to abhor.

Contrast MS’s behaviour with that of SJ in 1997, his open acknowledgement of Apple having ‘lost’ the PC wars, signing a peace treaty with MS (along with a grant and tech support such as MS Explorer on the Mac OS), and actively scanning the environment for new and exploitable opportunities to break out of Apple’s own, partially self-inflicted confines and growing irrelevance, and the contribution of corporate culture on a companies fortunes is telling, indeed.

As for the piece on Google Glass and Augmented Dating, I can honestly say that I couldn’t be happier that I am a happily married man.

John Freely

Idiotic analysis. If anything, VPs who fail after they leave do so because they think they can do no wrong. Ron Johnson decided that coupons were a drug, and wanted to do away with them. But instead of testing out this and other changes at a few stores, he took what he learned at Apple, which is “we’re always right,” and had those changes implemented at *every* store. The result was a 25% drop in sales. The “Executives already in place, with feet of clay,” as you call them, were the ones telling Ron Johnson that he needed to test his changes before rolling them out everywhere.

Bill Andersom

I just love the little blurb at the end regarding the author, Mr. Martellaro: “John Martellaro was born at an early age…”

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