The Core of Apple’s Dominance

Forget market share. This week’s unveiling of the tech giant’s latest products is a reminder of the value of “mind share.”

In the decade since the iPhone’s debut, Apple has sold an average of 120 million devices per year. Yet, 10 years and 1.2 billion device sales later, today’s unveiling of the newest line of iPhones is the most anticipated Apple product event since its initial release in 2007.

More remarkable than the newest features or latest design is the fact that the iPhone has retained its dominate position in terms of mindshare, if not market share, for so long. (Samsung usually ranks first in the latter category.) “When you are a dominant player, you have to think longer term and trust the relationship between your brand and consumers,” says Jamen Graves, a senior partner in Korn Ferry’s Technology practice. “You have to avoid the trap of getting caught battling competitors on features.”

Instead of focusing on short-term wins like adding one or two new features to an existing product, Graves says organizations that outperform over a sustained period of time bake innovation into their culture. Apple, from the return of founder Steve Jobs in 1997 to current CEO Tim Cook and his leadership team, has embodied the four traits common to innovative organizations: creativity, collaboration, courage, and execution.

Achieving a consistently high level of performance is no easy feat in today’s constantly changing business environment, of course. Corporate history is littered with examples of organizations and products that have struggled to keep a hold on their leadership positions. Research-in-Motion’s Blackberry is one particularly relevant example. This year alone we’ve seen once-mighty legacy brands in retail, consumer products and other sectors fall from their lofty perches.

Graves said to remain relevant in the long term, organizations must increase their metabolism to keep pace with today’s business velocity. That means moving from siloed, hierarchical structures to more cross-collaborative cultures. The old way of handing off a project from one department to the next doesn’t work in a mobile and social landscape where consumers demand a seamless experience. “A broader group of stakeholders needs to be at the table sooner than ever before,” Graves says. “You can’t wait until you are halfway through the product-development process to find out there might be some legal or regulatory or user-experience issue that needs to corrected before moving forward.”

Reorganizing isn’t just a matter of shuffling people around, however. Simply moving talent between divisions could actually slow productivity and decrease engagement. Experts say it takes a leader with a high level of emotional and social intelligence to match the right people up with the right leader. Tech companies, in particular, can struggle with this facet of leadership as the prevailing modus operandi is that tech skills are valued most and engineering work trumps everything else. That, in turn, has an impact on an organization’s long-term performance—no matter how cool or fun the work is, great talent won’t stay long under middling leadership.

“It’s the difference of hard work being energizing or exhausting,” Graves says.

 For organizations, it’s also the difference between staying on top or falling to the bottom.