Podolny, an accomplished scholar and administrator whose resume includes teaching at two of the nation's top business schools, Stanford and Harvard, is an economic sociologist who focuses on leadership and organizational behavior.
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. 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."
By all accounts, Podolny lifted the fortunes of the young business school. He was credited with helping applications rise 50% during his 3½-year tenure. He recruited top scholars, increasing the size of the faculty by 20%. And his prodigious efforts on the stump helped the school raise more than $170 million. He was also in the classroom more often than most deans and responded to every email, frequently by 4:30 a.m.
"I remember scratching my head and thinking, 'This guy is not going to last at this rate.' Sure enough, he left sooner than we had hoped," Yale business professor Doug Rae said.
In October 2008, Podolny was at the top of his academic game with many expecting he would go on to become a university president. He stunned colleagues by abruptly stepping down as dean in the middle of the term and officially joining Apple in early 2009.
"The timing surprised everyone. 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," said Garth Saloner, dean of Stanford's Business School.
But Podolny was someone who had flouted convention to work on the cutting edge of academia. "Joel is an innovator and very creative and he's always looking for new areas to apply that talent," Saloner said.
Like others Jobs has recruited over the years, observers say Podolny fell under Jobs' spell. Podolny said he decided to leave Yale for the chance to work with a modern-day Thomas Edison.
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.
The importance of his new position at Apple was apparent from the first day. Podolny moved into an office in between Jobs and Cook, he confided in former colleagues. And, in a testament to Jobs' faith in Podolny, he was later named vice president of human resources.
Columbia University social scientist Peter Bearman, who was Podolny's advisor for his thesis on the role of Juan Carlos I in helping Spain establish a parliamentary democracy, said Podolny pursued his career-long interest in leadership at Apple.
"The idea that he was helping to build a structure for Apple into the future probably appealed to him," Bearman said.
FULL COVERAGE: Steve Jobs | 1955-2011