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The Power of Personalities at Tech Companies

Powerful individuals at tech firms can come to personify the company, for better or worse.

A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.

Last week’s promotion of Jony Ive to chief design officer at Apple was a useful reminder of the degree to which a portion of the world will go nuts over any announcement relating to Apple, and of the power of at least some of the individual personalities at major tech firms.

So much ink would never have been spilled over a change in job title at any other company, a testament to the interest in Apple as a firm and also to the significance of Ive to Apple’s success. But that impact is broader than just Ive, and broader than Apple, too. It’s a principle that applies across the tech industry, where powerful personalities help shape their employer’s brands, for better or worse.

Personalities as brand ambassadors

Jony Ive has always been part of the mystique of Apple, all the more so since the passing of Steve Jobs. More than anyone else, these two personified what made Apple special and, though Tim Cook has done a phenomenal job running Apple since Jobs stepped down, it’s Ive, not Cook, who still represents the magic that makes Apple what it is. Though Tim Cook has increasingly become the face of the company at keynotes and in the press, it’s Ive’s face (and voice) that help define how Apple sees itself and how others see it. Ive is therefore emblematic of the first of the trends I want to talk about: These powerful personalities as brand ambassadors.

What’s interesting about Ive is he has never been much of a public personality — he’s often seen only in canned videos and quoted in printed interviews, but rarely seen speaking candidly on camera or onstage at a live event. Other personalities who served this role as brand ambassadors include Jobs himself, of course, but also Elon Musk, Bill Gates and others. These individuals all became the public faces of their brands, and it’s no coincidence these three all filled this role as both founders and CEOs of their respective companies.

Personifying the company

In other ways, powerful individuals at tech companies (again, often the founding CEOs) can come to personify the company. They give shape and form to the company, which otherwise exists solely in its products or services. Mark Zuckerberg, in his hoodie and jeans, seems to personify the generation with which Facebook came into being, and still represents the culture of Facebook — youthful and slightly irreverent. Zuckerberg is also arguably the best-known tech company CEO in the post-Jobs era, as a brief survey of my less tech-savvy friends confirmed (I think the “Social Network” movie likely had something to do with this).

Others, too, seem to personify their companies, for better or worse — Uber’s Travis Kalanick as the energetic, aggressive, perhaps slightly chauvinistic, head of the company that’s equally aggressive, and has sometimes appeared to downplay issues affecting women. Evan Spiegel, with his youthful indiscretions, seems to perfectly sum up the very need for Snapchat.

Lieutenants as public personalities

Many of these prominent personalities are the CEOs and often also the founders of their respective companies. While this makes them both formal and informal figureheads, it can also concentrate both power and attention on single individuals. For all the attention paid to Jobs during his lifetime, however, one of the things he did best was create a succession plan which not only allowed Cook to take over in a way that gave him ample time to prepare and gain credibility, but also allowed others to emerge into the limelight following his ascension.

Jeff Williams spoke last week at the Code conference, representing Apple rather than Cook, and Ive himself has been the subject of various profiles and interviews in recent months. Craig Federighi and others have taken a greater share of keynote time at recent Apple events.

But others play important secondary roles to prominent founders and, unlike the ranks of major tech company founders and CEOs, some of them are women: Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook, Julie Larson-Green at Microsoft and Regina Dugan at Google. However, even there, most are still men, including the aforementioned Apple executives, Sundar Pichai at Google, Joe Belfiore at Microsoft and Hugo Barra at Xiaomi.

These lieutenants serve an important role as alternative figureheads for their respective companies, though few are known outside tech circles in the world at large. But these companies are missing an opportunity to show the diversity of their employee bases by having mostly men represent them in the world. Lisa P. Jackson’s emergence as one of the more interesting and more public figures at Apple in recent months has been a welcome sign, and I still hope we’ll see more of Angela Ahrendts, too.

Assets and liabilities

These prominent individuals can be enormous assets for companies, humanizing them, giving people a personality to associate with companies that can otherwise seem monolithic and inhuman. But they can also be liabilities, as when these individuals get themselves into trouble, whether legal or merely verbal. As well as personifying the best traits of their employers, they can do the opposite, as both Kalanick and Spiegel have demonstrated, and as other less well-known but nonetheless prominent executives have done.

It can be tempting, therefore, to put straitjackets on these executives, ensuring they’re always on their best behavior, and although that can seem desirable, it significantly lessens their ability to serve as positive brand ambassadors. People want these executives to be human, and their fallibility (within reason) confirms that humanity. Sometimes it’s easy to forget these individuals have private lives every bit as important to them as ours are to us, as we were reminded in the saddest possible way recently with the death of Sheryl Sandberg’s husband, Dave Goldberg.

Back to Ive

I’ll end where I started, with Jony Ive and his promotion. I’ve written about the promotion itself elsewhere, and won’t go into that in detail here. But the hubbub over the promotion and what it might mean for the future of Apple is a helpful reminder that these prominent personalities can take on outsized roles in our visions of these companies. Yes, Ive is absolutely critical to Apple’s success over the past 15 years, and I hope that he, along with many others, sticks around.

Designers perhaps seem particularly hard to replace because their talents are so unique — few of us likely doubt that Jeff Williams could take over from Tim Cook to the same extent we might doubt Ive’s lieutenants could take over for him. One operations guy is much like another (we might think), but designers are all different. However, whether Jony Ive stays or goes over the next few years, what’s certain is Apple’s design will be in good hands. We might not get exactly the same products from Ive’s successors we would have got from Ive himself, but we’ll almost certainly get equally good ones.

It’s a helpful reminder that these outsized versions we create of these individual executives sometimes blind us to the fact all these companies go far beyond their individual founders and CEOs, and even their lieutenants.

Jan Dawson is founder and chief analyst at Jackdaw, a technology research and consulting firm focused on the confluence of consumer devices, software, services and connectivity. During his 13 years as a technology analyst, Dawson has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Dawson worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as chief telecoms analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally. Reach him @jandawson.

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