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Steve Jobs' virtual DNA to be fostered in Apple University

To survive its late founder, Apple and Steve Jobs planned a training program in which company executives will be taught to think like him, in 'a forum to impart that DNA to future generations.' Key to this effort is Joel Podolny, former Yale Business School dean.

October 06, 2011|By Jessica Guynn, Los Angeles Times
  • Steve Jobs helped plan Apple University -- an executive training program to help Apple carry on without him.
Steve Jobs helped plan Apple University -- an executive training program… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)

Reporting from San Francisco — Apple Inc. now has to get down to the business of surviving its founder.

It's something that Apple — and Steve Jobs himself — had been painstakingly planning for years.

Deep inside its sprawling Cupertino, Calif., campus, one of the world's most successful and secretive companies has had a team of experts hard at work on a closely guarded project.

PHOTOS: The life of Steve Jobs

But it isn't a cool new gadget. It's an executive training program called Apple University that Jobs considered vital to the company's future: Teaching Apple executives to think like him.

"Steve was looking to his legacy. 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," said a former Apple executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve his relationship with the company. "No other company has a university charged with probing so deeply into the roots of what makes the company so successful."

Jobs oversaw the most remarkable corporate turnaround in Silicon Valley history after returning to Apple in 1997. For more than a decade, he was behind every crucial decision as Apple rolled out blockbuster hits from the iPod to the iPad, changing how people listen to music and watch entertainment, reshaping entire industries and making Apple the world's most valuable tech company.

The challenge of maintaining that momentum came into sharp focus Tuesday when Apple's newly minted chief executive Tim Cook took Jobs' place on stage to show off an updated version of the world's best-selling smart phone. Without its master pitchman, Apple didn't get the kind of adulation for the iPhone's new features to which it's accustomed.

Apple would not comment on Apple University. But people familiar with the project say Jobs personally recruited the dean of Yale's Business School in 2008 to run it. Joel Podolny's assignment: Help Apple internalize the thoughts of its visionary founder to prepare for the day when he's not around anymore.

"One of the things that Steve Jobs understood very well is that Apple is like no other company on the planet," said longtime Apple analyst Tim Bajarin. "It became pretty clear that Apple needed a set of educational materials so that Apple employees could learn to think and make decisions as if they were Steve Jobs."

Podolny tasked leading business professors including Harvard University's Richard Tedlow, who wrote a biography of former Intel chief Andy Grove 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.

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. 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.

The idea of building an ivory tower on a corporate campus goes back decades with the best-known — and oldest — run by General Electric. Corporate universities fell out of favor in the 1990s, considered too expensive, bureaucratic and out of touch with the companies they were supposed to serve. Even Apple shut down its corporate university.

But Jobs' interest in a corporate university never wavered, former employees say. For years he pressed for a way to study the success of Apple's executive team as well as Apple's culture and history. His model was Pixar. The animation studio that Jobs sold to Disney for $7.5 billion in 2006 runs Pixar University, a professional development program that offers courses in fine arts and filmmaking as well as leadership and management to steep employees in the company's culture, history and values as well as its craft.

"He had the university concept at Pixar, and he believed in it," said a former Apple executive who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve his relationship with the company.

What Jobs needed was someone to carry out his vision.

Apple began approaching Podolny and other academics about five years ago, according to people who were contacted. The project took on greater urgency in 2008 shortly before Jobs took his second medical leave from Apple.

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