Ex-Apple boss Ruth Powell on the need for people skills
03 March 2020
- Ruth Powell worked at the cutting edge of technology with Apple
- The former Apple Europe sales manager gives her tips for women
- She describes how she was inspired by her pioneering mother
- Now as a mentor and coach she preaches self-belief and positivity
As a woman working in the male-dominated high tech world of Apple Ruth Powell never batted an eyelid.
After all, her mother had led the way, becoming the first female Regional Director at British Rail in the 1970s, a time when gender equality was talked about as much as smartphones. A woman’s place was most definitely in the home back then, but with a husband suffering a long-term illness and five children to raise, Winona Pritchard took on the male patriarchy with some gusto.
“My mother was an amazing role model,” says Ruth, who is now a coach and consultant after nearly 30 years pioneering the digital revolution at Apple. “I thought being a mum and successful career woman was normal and she instilled in us the belief that we girls can do anything. She was also absolutely gorgeous – intelligent, kind, vivacious and charismatic - she was an inspiration.”
Ruth tackled the technology sector with the same humility and charm as her mother, joining Apple in 1984 and rising to be sales account manager in Apple Europe after securing a global contract with BP that earned the tech giant $9 million a year.
And she believes it was her people skills rather than any technological knowhow that saw her succeed, something she tries to instil in the young women she coaches today.
“When I am mentoring, I talk about positive potential,” says Ruth. “Companies aren’t hiring you because you know everything, it is about hiring potential and enthusiasm - there is only one thing more infectious than enthusiasm and that is a lack of it! My attitude has always been; I am part of the solution, not the problem.”
Ruth admits being a woman in the tech industry was unusual, but she never saw it as a disadvantage and with Apple an upstart trailblazing company – a David against the Goliaths of IBM and Microsoft back then – her positive attitude was vital.
“At Apple we were small and lean with low PC market share,” says Ruth, whose English Literature tutor at the University of Warwick was screenwriter Andrew Davies, who wrote House of Cards, Pride & Prejudice and War & Peace for TV.
“There were few women in sales management, so we often had to work twice as hard while maintaining integrity and authenticity. My strength was building mutually beneficial relationships and understanding what the customer’s perspective was, deep diving into their business issues, then clearly communicating and applying technology solutions.”
Ruth saw Apple’s fortunes transform as operating systems were opened up, once taking the stage alongside Bill Gates to launch Microsoft Excel on the Apple Mac and later spearheading sales of the marketing revolution known as ‘desktop publishing’.
All the time her emotional intelligence was winning customers and influence as Apple rose to prominence, slowly evolving into the trillion dollar company we see today.
“It was such an incredibly fast-paced environment, the constant updates and development of technology was challenging to keep up with,” says Ruth. “Looking back I would advise women to simply be passionate about what you do, be a ‘people person’. Be tech savvy, solution and platform aware yes, but don’t sweat the details as it’s guaranteed to change faster than we can learn.
“When I go into One Apple Park now, for example, inside the 3,000-seat Caffe Macs, the kitchen looks like a laboratory, a forest of foliage with high-tech TopBrewer brewing a cup of coffee with just a few taps on an iPad. It seems the vast majority are engineers, millennials, super bright, with their air pods in, facing screens and seemingly little personal interaction - is it now still only about technology?
“But Steve Jobs was all about people using technology; you can’t have every employee generating code and developing apps, you need to be able to understand the business needs and strategic long term challenges of using technology, to stand in their shoes and to build relationships and deliver solutions – that was what I was good at and in this digital age, companies need that clarity more than ever.
“Steve Jobs said 'technology is nothing. What's important is that you have a faith in people, that they're basically good and smart, and if you give them tools, they'll do wonderful things with them' – I think there is a lot in that.
“I succeeded because of my communication and people skills and I am still using them for good today in my philanthropic work, influencing support and fundraising for Armed Forces charities, along with mentoring the next generation of executives.”
Ruth added: “I have to say I doubt that I would have been given such huge responsibilities and opportunities in Apple if there hadn't been male managers who believed in my potential. I still have and am supported by a number of mentors, to whom I will always be grateful.
“I’ve been fortunate to have often been in ‘the right place at the right time’; to me there are no ‘glass ceilings’ only ‘glass doors’ to see opportunities to open and move through.
“Many of us just need a little more self-belief, to feel confident to ‘go for it’, to take risks, recognise and learn from mistakes, stretch capabilities but always to believe in our own potential.
“I was given that belief by my wonderful mother and my mentors. With my consultative approach to coaching, I hope to continue enjoying passing my knowledge and experience on to women today.”
Ruth Powell will be part of the Warwick Women's Professional Network event celebrating 50 years of Warwick women graduates at WBS London at The Shard on Thursday March 5.