Stella Lowe was hired away from Cisco to take over communications at Apple. Apple has one of the strongest brands in the industry, thanks to Steve Jobs, who uniquely seemed to create and maintain a positive brand image even when the company was doing poorly. But his dominance in that role led to an apparent marketing and image shortfall when he departed, leading to a far more uneven image of the company and one that has been trending down, slowly, over time.
The question is not whether Lowe has the talent to turn this tendency around, but whether she will be allowed to do that job and whether Apple’s behavior, which contributed significantly to the image decline, will moderate helping her effort.
Let’s talk about that this week.
Why Communications Sucks
My first real mentor at IBM was a CMO, and one of the things I learned from him was that you need to be very astute in internal politics to do that job. Even though I’d studied marketing and market research in college, had a degree in merchandising, and served as a marketing director in retail, it seemed most of the instruction I got was surviving internal politics.
In male-dominated technology companies, it isn’t uncommon to have communications run and staffed by women. Engineers, who are often not known for their excellent interpersonal behavior and have historically tended to favor male opinions and treat women as acquisitions, not peers, often feel they are also marketing experts. This misogynistic culture creates a destructive dynamic where the more experienced people in the subject area are constantly overridden by people that have no real clue what they are talking about and seem to be walking proof of the Dunning Kruger effect.
This lack of confidence in those with competence tends to lead to either short tenures for competent people or incompetent but politically capable leaders in marketing and comms roles, particularly in companies where the board and CEO also lack marketing expertise.
Dell and Cisco vs. Apple
Stella Lowe is one of the most competent Communications managers I’ve ever worked with, and I’ve seen her very competent work at Dell and then Cisco. However, both of those companies, when it comes to diversity, are very different from Apple. I’ve spoken with Michael Dell on diversity, and he takes the effort very seriously. He will take personal punitive action against any Dell employee that misbehaves with a female employee.
Cisco goes even further, starting their diversity effort at the top of the company. That company goes farther than any company I work with to ensure diversity and inclusion. I’m a firm believer that if you want to promote diversity, you have to start at the top; otherwise, you’ll harden the glass ceiling because people like to maintain the status quo, which is, in most cases, dominated by men.
Contrasting Cisco and Apple, on Cisco’s leadership team out of 12 executives, 5, or almost half were before Stella left, women with several in strategic positions (CTO, COO, Partner/sales). In contrast, Apple’s executive team of 13 had four women executives before Stella joined, with most in staff positions (legal, corporate responsibility, HR).
This difference means that the support Stella got at Dell and Cisco should be far greater than the support she is likely to get at Apple. Still, her 30 years of experience in an industry infamous for misogyny should have prepared her for this problem. The question is will Apple let her do the job.
Apple Unique Communications Problem
EMC, Dell, and Cisco all operate primarily in the corporate space where trusting the brand and image are paramount. All had in place policies that seemed to have prevented the firms, at least in recent years, from being called out for bad behavior. Apple seems to have bad behavior on its to-do list with various problematic employee and customer abuse issues. Their Wikipedia page on bad behavior is almost a book.
Doing communications for companies that appear to avoid bad behavior is far easier than doing it for firms that instead seem to lack those same constraints. It is far easier to spin a positive message around a company behaving well than a company misbehaving, and Apple has, historically, appeared to be a bad actor.
At one time, Apple had one of the most impressive advocacy efforts globally, having co-opted most high-profile reporters covering the company. But that network was defunded after Steve Jobs’ passing, and the company not only lacks that capability in the current social media-driven world, it may no longer be relevant. However, using social media, an equivalent engine could be built, but the skills needed to do so are still in their infancy (and mostly seem to revolve around politics rather than tech).
The issue for any communications or marketing executive when you have a company that seems to be surrounded by lousy behavior is they will be missioned to create a positive image in contrast with that behavior. For petrochemical, pharmaceutical, and defense companies that aren’t all that public but also tend to have these problems, this can be done. But for a very public consumer-facing company in near-constant litigation and under anti-trust review, this could be impossible regardless of skill set. And this builds on top of the problem that a woman in a staff position may not have the necessary support in a male-dominated company to use that skillset fully.
My overall point is that while Stella Lowe is one of the most competent executives in her chosen field that I’ve met, Apple’s behavior makes the communications job at that company unusually difficult. This combination could make the job a blame magnet, and the position generally lacks the authority to fix the real problem, which is Apple’s behavior. She’ll have less support and far more significant problems to address than any of the last three companies where she has worked.
If Stella succeeds at Apple, and there are few more capable of doing so, it will be a far more significant accomplishment than most will realize, and if she fails, it will have more to do with the company than her, but that too maybe not be taken into account.
If I were to classify difficulty as easy, medium, challenging, and heroic, this job at Apple would be in the heroic class with an off-the-chart level of difficulty. The issue isn’t that Stella doesn’t have the skills, but whether Apple will give her the necessary support and top cover, so she doesn’t become a blame magnet for the firm’s failures in judgment.