Ahrendts Pick Bodes Well for a Fresh Apple Store Experience
This is what Ahrendts will have to do: Take the in-person Apple retail store experience and make sure that all that fancy glass doesn't turn the Apple experience into cold aloofness. It will be about how people continue to feel as they enter and exit Apple retail stores. Because online is so important now, too, she will also be working on the Apple online store experience, which tends to be cold and flat.
I never would have imagined that I would jump on the bandwagon for the CEO of a British luxury fashion company, but here I am preparing to gush over Angela Ahrendts, who will be leaving Burberry to take over Apple's retail store operations in early 2014.
Apple CEO Tim Cook made the announcement Monday, and the first thing that came to mind -- frankly -- was that, whoa, the massively male executive team at Apple was finally choosing a woman.
Not that I have anything against men, and certainly not the guys who've been creating my favorite electronic products for years. Diversity doesn't always mean you get a better product, though, and I've never gotten the impression that Apple would tolerate anyone less than amazing in any leadership role.
As for me, I've worked for more seriously smart women than men in my life, and I've also learned that gender has little to do with great leadership. If you're like me, you've seen more than your fair share of dolts, and you know they come in all shapes, colors and sizes.
A Unique Experience
Angela Ahrendts is not a dolt.
How's that for praise? I'm easing into the gushing here because really, I had never heard of Angela Ahrendts before Monday. Yet her appointment to a new position of senior vice president, reporting directly to Tim Cook, caught my attention.
Why? Apple retail stores are the single most important element of Apple's recent success (and quite possibly Steve Jobs' greatest invention). In fact, despite our increasingly mobile and online world, Apple retail stores present a unique experience among technology companies, at once giving customers a place to touch, hold and experience working products as well as learn to use them and get them repaired.
Choosing the wrong leader for the retail experience -- again -- could be disastrous for Apple.
So Who Is Angela Ahrendts?
Ahrendts is a 53-year-old CEO with a paycheck around US$27 million. She previously worked for other major fashion labels like Donna Karan and Liz Claiborne before taking the lead at Burberry, a company with 150-plus years of history behind it. As near as I can tell, she slimmed down the brand's fashion offerings, focusing on high-end style, then took it around the globe, both with a focused look at geographies for physical stores as well as through a massive digital online strategy.
Burberry's YouTube channel boasts nearly 350 videos. I randomly picked a show from the spring/summer of 2013 and was pleasantly surprised -- I'm not a high fashion fan, but I could immediately sense an intent to evoke a feeling, rather than a look. Fashion that evokes emotion as its primary driver.
One commenter even asked how does Burberry always have the best songs in their shows?
I'm not sure how the fashion shows come together, but I do know that a great CEO can set the tone for the driving principles of a company, and if the leader leads, the essence of the brand makes it out into the world.
It happened with Steve Jobs at Apple, of course, and it seems to be continuing with Tim Cook, mostly because he seems to be a master enabler who holds strong to core principles, particularly one that elevates the product to the top, right next to the customer experience.
More Than a Pretty Fashion Show
There are dozens of videos of Ahrendts on YouTube, so I dove into them, trying to get a sense of what she cares about professionally. Clearly she maintains a down-to-earth set of midwestern values ... while leading a high-end fashion company. Very interesting indeed.
Her utter lack of pretension (at least from what I've seen) will likely fit well in California, not to mention at Apple. Though clearly she will be much better dressed than her soon-to-be executive peers at Apple.
In her interview with Charlie Rose, she talks about taking the job at Burberry, and what struck me as particularly interesting is that she recognized the potential for what Burberry could become. Not everyone has this sort of imagination, and plenty of CEOs manage to their boards, to their budgets, to existing markets.
In another video, Ahrendts almost laments that nobody ever asks if the job, the work, is fun. She acknowledges that so much in the world is about the doom and gloom, but points out that Burberry has fun. They laugh at work.
"This is our life, it isn't work, and we have one shot at it," she explains. "What's wrong with creating the most amazing environment? Positive energy ... We are a company built on tremendous positive energy."
That brings me to the most important reason I'm excited to see Ahrendts join Apple.
The Power of Energy and Environment
In a TEDx talk, "The Power of Human Energy: Angela Ahrendts at TEDxHollywood," Ahrendts gets at the heart of amazing people and great leaders -- energy. She believes that people can take in energy -- like air -- and exude it, too. And human energy, she says, has the power to unite and transform companies and communities.
Literally or figuratively, it doesn't really matter if energy can be sucked in from the universe and expelled like amphetamine fairy dust -- my words, not hers -- but she is on to something intentional, something powerful. Steve Jobs could harness energy, which can be infectious, and wield it to create a whole new company with innovative and astounding products.
Ahrendts seems to understand that energy is mightier than a spreadsheet -- that focused desire, vision and trust brings results. So many executives start with the budget, the financial dashboard, the percentages of profit and use them as the starting point for their goals.
Apple never starts with profitability. Apple starts with products that can make a difference to the world. This is a fundamental point of reference, a foundation, and it's far more important than Ahrendts' ability to help Apple maintain its high-end reputation for great products in a world that's increasingly homogenized into low-end similarities.
Focus on Feelings
This is what Ahrendts will have to do: Take the in-person Apple retail store experience and make sure that all that fancy glass doesn't turn the Apple experience into cold aloofness. It will be about how people continue to feel as they enter and exit Apple retail stores.
Because online is so important now, too, she will also be working on the Apple online store experience, which tends to be cold and flat.
To connect thousands and thousands of retail employees -- and to move the Apple retail store experience to the next new level of awesomeness -- will take a leader of profound positive human energy. That's the bottom line.
Apple doesn't need to run the stores with greater precision; what Apple needs is someone who can see a vision of what the store experience should become -- and then channel energy to get it done.
Few leaders truly understand these concepts, and it all makes me look forward to seeing what Ahrendts does with Apple.