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Joel Podolny

By Michelle M. Hu, Crimson Staff Writer

According to one of his blockmates, Joel M. Podolny ’86 was one of the first people in his class to use an Apple desktop computer for school.

“At first, I was a little bit envious but then I realized, ‘Hey, maybe I can get on there sometimes and type a paper instead of traipsing down to the science center,’” says James A. Messina ’86, Podolny’s roommate. “That was certainly a treat.”

Nearly 30 years later, Podolny has come full circle, leaving behind a two-decade career in academia—and a deanship at the Yale School of Management—to head Apple University, the company’s internal training program.

Though Apple has not publicly released specific information about the institution, those who know Podolny have attested that his leadership style and management abilities will be appreciated regardless of whether he works in academia or in private industry.

“A JOHN HUGHES MOVIE”

Podolny, who said he was unable to interview for this story due to Apple policy, came to Harvard from a relatively privileged background, according to Messina.

“I came judging him as a little bit of a rich kid when I first met him,” Messina says, noting that Podolny hailed from an affluent Cincinnati neighborhood and was educated at private school, while Messina came from a public school background.

Nonetheless, Messina says that his friendship with Podolny throughout their college careers reminds him of a John Hughes movie—”The Breakfast Club,” in particular.

Messina’s initial impression quickly faded when Podolny joined the Big Brother/Big Sister program and mentored a teenager named Steve, taking him to professional wrestling matches and out for ice cream.

“It was really neat to see that side of Joel, that he had such a big heart,” Messina says.

Though Podolny took part in community service and joined the crew team, Messina says that Podolny also took on a challenging academic load in Social Studies, and his dedication to his coursework left him extremely stressed.

As sophomores in North House—now Pforzheimer House—Messina says that Podolny was beginning to noticeably struggle and seemed to be an “insomniac” for an entire semester. But despite his troubles, Messina says that Podolny’s commanding intellect developed perceptibly throughout their undergraduate years.

“He was not sleeping at all, but still doing amazing work,” Messina says.

Podolny ended up graduating magna cum laude and returned to Harvard the next year to pursue his Ph.D. in sociology.

“INCREDIBLE ADMIRATION”

Cabot House Master Rakesh Khurana, a professor at Harvard Business School, first spoke to Podolny when he was admitted to the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where Podolny was serving as a professor of organizational behavior and strategic management at the time. Khurana eventually chose to attend Harvard and later became a professor at HBS in 2000. Podolny also came to Cambridge in 2002 and became Khurana’s colleague, after an 11-year stint at Stanford in which he became an academic dean of the business school. At Harvard, Podolny accepted a joint appointment as a professor of organizational behavior at the Business School and a professor of sociology at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Khurana says he holds “incredible admiration” for Podolny’s work, and considers him a foremost intellectual in his field.

“He was one of the first people to utilize large empirical methods to study the role of social networks to explain economic phenomena,” Khurana says.

Podolny also utilized his expertise in sociology to explain leadership as a field of study, and Khurana says that that Podolny’s personal leadership abilities allowed him to be successful in teaching.

For example, Podolny has a knack for inspiring confidence in his students. As Khurana explains, Podolny would restate his students’ ideas in conversation while hinting at broader concepts, allowing students to pick up on these themes.

“His approach is that he makes people feel smarter than they actually are. He lifts you up and makes you feel like you can do anything in this world,” Khurana says.

His strong leadership was recognized rapidly, and Podolny was named Dean of Yale School of Management at the age of 39. While serving as dean, Podolny instituted extensive reforms to the MBA program curriculum, making it significantly more interdisciplinary. He also expanded the size of the faculty, oversaw in part a 50 percent increase in applications to the school, and helped to raise $170 million in its capital campaign.

However, many who have worked with Podolny attest to his humility and say that his academic success does not change his approach to others.

“While he had a very prolific academic record, he wasn’t impressed by that or wasn’t interested in letting people know just how successful he had been at Stanford,” says Thomas J. DeLong, a professor at Harvard Business School.

APPLE UNIVERSITY

His departure from the school after just three years was unexpected—especially in light of the school’s plans to build a new campus—according to the Yale Daily News.

Though Yale students and academics were surprised that Podolny chose to leave for corporate America, Podolny’s colleagues at Harvard say they were supportive of his decision—though Khurana adds that Podolny’s departure was “academia’s loss.”

David A. Thomas, who served with Podolny on Yale’s Board of Advisers and is currently a professor at HBS, says he feels Podolny made the right decision in leaving Yale when the opportunity at Apple presented itself.

“He left having been very successful. I really can’t say if he had stayed 3 more years, he would have had double the impact,” Thomas says.

Messina, who was in contact with Podolny during this time, says that Podolny’s decision to leave Yale for Apple was “gut-wrenching,” but ultimately motivated by one very specific reason: the opportunity to work with Apple’s then-CEO, Steve Jobs.

“He literally said to me, ‘This is my chance to work with our time’s Thomas Alva Edison,’” Messina says.

Thomas says that Podolny’s time at Apple will train him to be an even more effective leader, should he decide to someday return to academia as a university president or pursue further opportunities in the business world.

“He understands excellence,” Thomas says. “At the end of the day, Joel really can and wants to have a positive impact on society beyond just the boundaries of business or academia.”

—Staff writer Michelle M. Hu can be reached at michellehu@college.harvard.edu.

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