HR Gets an Upgrade at Apple

HR has long been something of a mystery at Apple. In our effort to compile our Top 100, a list of chief HR officers at the nation’s 100 largest employers, we often struggle to get a response at Apple. Eventually, we do manage to get the information we’re after, but it often takes more than a few follow-up calls and emails to get it.

apple-logoDuring his tenure as chief executive officer at Apple, Steve Jobs was known as someone who didn’t give a whole lot of credence to HR. In fact, it’s said that Jobs, in interviewing an applicant for the position of vice president of HR, once said, “I’ve never met one of you [HR people] who didn’t suck. I’ve never known an HR person who had anything but a mediocre mentality.”

Perhaps these words are merely an urban legend, but if he did indeed say them, they’re a pretty harsh assessment.

Well, as you know, Jobs selected Tim Cook, then Apple’s chief operating officer, to replace him soon before his passing in 2011. And since then, there’s been no shortage of stories that attempt to address how Cook’s leadership style differs from Jobs. Search the web and I’m sure you’ll find quite a few. But for those of us in HR, an appropriate follow-up question might also be: Is HR viewed any differently today under Cook?

I recently ran across at least a partial answer to that in a post titled “These VPs report directly to Apple CEO Tim Cook” on Business Insider. The story reports that Apple recently expanded the group of executives featured on its executive profiles page—from nine to 14 (there are actually 15 there)—and now includes the company’s heads of special projects, environmental initiatives and, yes, even HR. All report to CEO Tim Cook BTW.

In case you’re wondering, HR today is led by Denise Young Smith, who previously headed HR for Apple’s retail division. Smith officially took over the top HR post earlier this year from John Podolny, who now heads Apple University and is also one of the 15 on the executive profiles page. We learned of Smith’s appointment just in time for us to include her on this year’s Top 100 list, though, despite our efforts, we weren’t able to determine who she reported to.

When I asked Jason Hanold, managing partner of Hanold Associates, an Evanston, Ill.-based executive search firm specializing in senior HR positions, whether things have changed under Cook as far as HR is concerned, his response was an unequivocal yes. He noted that a few folks he knows well recently joined Apple, and there’s little question the firm is elevating its people capability and emphasis.

Today, Hanold says, “they get that they will compete best and most sustainably with the best talent driving the most compelling innovation and products.” He adds that Apple is showing no signs of complacency, given the talent they are bringing on board today.

Personally, I would put that under the category of good news for the firm, though who can question Steve Jobs’ truly amazing track record. Who knows, perhaps this could even be a sign that going forward, HR at Apple won’t be nearly the enigma that it’s been in the past.

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