Apple hired Ahrendts in in 2014, after Apple CEO Tim Cook listened to her April 2013 TED talk on “the positive and transformative power of human energy.” Cook told her after that moment that he knew she was “supposed to be [at Apple],” which was the “pivotal moment” in her decision to leave her role as Burberry CEO and join Apple’s executive team. “He was so calm, and so deep and just the way that he said it…” she said. “I’d never had that in interaction with another person.”
Switching careers and leaving fashion for a tech company made her “incredibly insecure,” and she says she spent first six months at Apple “fairly silent” because she wanted to listen to get her bearings and gain confidence in her role.
Get in your lane, bring your gifts to the table, right? They don’t expect you to learn – you’re used to being the CEO in an industry that you grew up in for 30 some odd years. You’re used to knowing everything. And now you go in at a senior level and you know nothing but no, wait a minute: You know what you do.
[Apple] was a titanic retail business at that point, with 55,000 employees all over the world. And so, okay, maybe I’m here because I’m a leader and maybe I’m here because I’m a brand builder. I wouldn’t go as far as say visionary, but I thrive on looking out two or three years and feeling what’s coming and warning everybody and uniting everybody around a strategy to be prepared for that.
According to Ahrendts, she learned three things during her time at Apple: never forget where you came from, move faster than you could ever fathom, and never forget that you have a greater responsibility.
Ahrendts said when she joined Apple and went out to visit retail stores, she’d hear phrases like “Steve said our job was to enrich lives,” and “Steve said this and wrote that.” While she could have disregarded that, she didn’t.
I could have thrown all that out, but [I thought] no let’s codify that. Let’s protect that. So, my first lesson, what I’ve learned from them after I hit 140 stores (what that taught me) is never forget where you came from, and use that as your foundation.
On the second lesson, that things move quickly, Ahrendts said that customers expect leadership to change and adapt with the times and the current technology. Apple wanted retail leaders to “move fast, fast.” “So we got rid of all the manuals, got rid of everything, started doing three minute YouTube,” said Ahrendts. “That’s how we united and aligned 70,000 [retail employees] around the world.”
Ahrendts’ last lesson, on a greater responsibility to humanity, sounds like something that Apple CEO Tim Cook and other Apple executives have said many times before.
The third thing was, never forget that you have a greater responsibility. That it is not just about operating stores, it is not just about selling phones, it is not. You have a much greater responsibility. And maybe that’s what Steve meant when he talked about enriching lives and, and when he talked about liberal arts and technology and the impact it could have on humanity.
I didn’t dare use the word humanity, but I would talk to the teams about the impact they could make in their community. And that’s what the Today at Apple experience, which is free of charge, teaches. It’s not a coincidence that it’s only teaching liberal arts: how to make you a better videographer or photographer or app developer or musician. Because I do believe that that’s what you’re going to need in the future. But I also believed that maybe liberal arts was a little bit of what was missing in the [Apple] stores.
So, you gotta look back. You have to never forget where you came from. You’re just coming in as a steward in a very short period of time. You’re going to turn the baton over. I always say I never ask for a title, I never ask for a raise, I’ve never asked for anything. All I’ve done is always try to do what’s best for the company at that point in time and everything else just falls into place.
So I think my counsel to the next generation would be “be selfless” and you will make an incredible impact.
Ahrendts has now moved on from Apple, but she had a major impact on the way Apple Stores run and many stores around the world have been updated with new store designs that have a community focus.
Deirdre O’Brien, formerly Apple’s vice president of people, has taken over Ahrendts’ role and will be overseeing Apple’s retail initiatives going forward.
The full interview with Ahrendts, which includes details on her early life and her time at Burberry, can be listened to on the Podcasts app, on the web, through iTunes, or wherever else podcasts are available.