Behind Apple's Bold and Risky New Hire

Former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson to join Apple Inc.
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Former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson to join Apple Inc.

Lisa Jackson, meet Apple.

The biggest piece of new information that Apple CEO Tim Cook dropped last night at the D11 conference: That he's hired Jackson, former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, to lead Apple's green efforts.

The move strikes me as both bold and risky.

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It's bold because in Jackson, Cook gains a high-profile and well-connected chemical engineer who is well-versed in policy. Apple's environmental footprint is immense; the company literally produces and packages more than 100 million devices every year, most of them iPhones and iPads.

Apple has the largest non-utility solar power farm in the country, and is one of the biggest customers of Bloom Energy's fuel cell power generation products. If she gets it right, Jackson could be the most influential corporate environmental policy executive in the world.

Which is why the Jackson hire is also risky. Jackson's career and experience has been in government, not Silicon Valley, and Apple's culture has some pretty strong antibodies. For Jackson to be successful, she's going to have to move to Silicon Valley, transform herself into a product-driven executive and spend as much time as possible with Jony Ive, the head of industrial design, and Bob Mansfield, the senior VP of technologies at Apple, from day one.

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Why Ive and Mansfield? They're the two executives most responsible for creating the building blocks of Apple's hardware designs and capabilities, and if she earns their confidence she'll have enough information (and clout) to influence everything else. If she doesn't, she'll be pretty ineffective.

Ive and Mansfield also have pivotal influence on Apple's corporate culture. I would argue that Ive actually keeps more secrets than Tim Cook himself. As leader of Apple's industrial design team, he sees sketches and prototypes before they're presented to Cook and the rest of the top executives; he also now oversees the look and feel of Apple's software. Mansfield not only works on the chips and battery technology that make Apple products different from rival gadgets, but also has history in Apple's general hardware engineering.

The Jackson hire is an intriguing milestone for Cook as a manager, and shows his continuing desire to look outside of Apple's comfort zone for hires, for better or for worse.

Cook's last high-profile hire at this level, John Browett as head of retail, was a flop; Browett came from a big-box background and didn't figure out how to adjust to Apple's culture in time. Jackson (and Cook) will at least be able to use Browett's tenure as a cautionary tale — I imagine that Apple fans who are rooting for Cook would hate to see another SVP-level hire go down in flames.

The key to Jackson's success, I suspect, will be embracing the fact that at its core, Apple is like a small, product-driven company. The most important top-level work gets done in weekly executive meetings where Cook and his team hash out details of product and strategy, and question deputies who are presenting new ideas.

Here's hoping Jackson is in the room every week, gathering information and giving feedback on Apple's designs and plans from the earliest stages. My gut says that's the only way this can work out well.