I know it sounds ludicrous, but investors often overlook the people in charge of protecting their investments. The idea of gauging a company's leadership plays second-fiddle to other categories of analysis. However, at Fool.com we believe careful study of effective leadership is one of the most important areas of evaluating long-term winning investments.

We like CEOs who actually work for shareholders like us. After all, we're the true owners of the business. When you're deciding whether to invest in a company, failing to vet its CEO is a big mistake. In fact, if you've overlooked the study of a company's leadership, then that's the one important area you should know about before finalizing your investment in the company.

After reviewing thousands of companies over dozens of years, we've found several crucial characteristics of quality management. Today, we'll size up the recent performance of Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL) leadership.

How much skin do they have in the game?
Are Apple CEO Steven Jobs' interests aligned with shareholders? Here's how the Apple CEO's ownership compares to that of other companies in the industry.

CEO, Company

Shares Owned

% of Shares Outstanding

Insider Ownership Market Value (in millions)

Steven Jobs, Apple

5,546,451

0.61%

$1,385

Catherine Lesjak, Hewlett-Packard

8,586

0.00%

$0

Michael Dell, Dell

254,850,349

13.02%

$3,076

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's. Shares are common stock equivalents only and do not include options, awards, and other forms of compensation.

Jobs actually owns $1,385 million worth of Apple, or 0.61% of shares outstanding. We Fools prefer CEOs who have higher ownership stakes in their businesses, since that better aligns their interests with shareholders'. However, while we think high insider ownership is a good sign, low insider ownership isn't necessarily a bad one. CEOs may be relatively new, or may have a low percent of shares outstanding, but a high total value of ownership. In Jobs' case, he owns over $1 billion worth of common stock, which would be considered substantial by any measuring stick.

How well are they using your money?
Return on equity can help investors determine how adeptly management gets the job done. This metric combines how well management is expanding profitability, managing assets, and using financial leverage, all in one ratio. While return on equity isn't foolproof -- managers can manipulate it with excessive leverage, for example -- it does an excellent job of suggesting how effective managers are, and how well they can generate high returns on investors' capital.

Here's a look at Apple's recent return on equity:


Despite difficult economic conditions, Apple managed to grow return on equity beyond its five-year average. Consistently increasing return on equity suggests that management is either adept at cutting costs and managing assets, or is moving the company into new high-return areas. In Apple's case the gains come largely from a shift in revenues from lower-margin Macs to high-margin iPhones. As Apple's product mix continues to skew in the direction of iPhones, ROE should continue climbing.

How productive are their workers?
Revenue per employee provides another way to gauge a CEO's effectiveness. If this metric is declining, the company might have a bloated organizational structure, or too many extra employees toiling away at new initiatives that just aren't working out. Either possibility would hint that management isn't effectively running the organization.


Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's.

As you can see, Apple's revenue per employee has moved above its five-year average. Rising revenue per employee can suggest that management's getting better at controlling costs, or encouraging more productivity from its workers. To better see whether Apple's management is excelling in this area, let's compare the company to its peer group once again:

Company

2005

2007

2009

Last Year's Revenue Per Employee vs. 5-Year Average

Apple

$941

$1,138

$1,251

12%

Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ)

$578

$606

$377

(25%)

Dell (Nasdaq: DELL)

$890

$689

$799

1%

Source: Capital IQ, a division of Standard & Poor's. Dollar figures in thousands.

Apple's revenue per employee isn't just rising -- it's better than its combined peer group. That's quite an impressive feat. Apple keeps a pretty low employee count relative to its outsized sales, making their recent achievements even more impressive. While some may doubt Jobs' shareholder friendliness when it comes to returning capital through dividends or buy backs, there's little question his unique vision has led the company to one of the greatest corporate turnarounds in history.

These are just a few of the factors we look for in a company's management. If you can find leaders who continually give shareholders high returns on their capital, and align their interests with yours, you've got a better chance to enjoy market-beating returns for the long haul.

Jeremy Phillips owns shares of no companies listed above. Apple is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor pick. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.