Jony Ive, Apple's legendary head of design who worked very closely with Steve Jobs for decades, made headlines last week when he announced that he would leave Apple to start his own design firm called LoveFrom. Beyond a simple statement praising his team, Ive has not spoken publicly about his reasons for leaving. And Apple's Tim Cook has issued a similarly laudatory statement about Ive's great contributions to Apple's success and how he's happily looking forward to continuing to work with Ive as LoveFrom's first client.
But if, like me, you've ever left a job to start your own business, you already know: You're not likely to do it if everything in your existing job is going swimmingly. And so many of us have looked on skeptically, feeling certain that there was more to the story, and wondering if we would ever find out the rest.
The Wall Street Journal published a story on Sunday intended to satisfy some of that curiosity. Though Ive did not comment to the Journal, and Apple didn't either, several unnamed employees reported that Ive seemed to have been withdrawing from the company for some time.
Now, Apple is a famously intense place to work, and Ive had been working there for nearly 30 years, so it could be that he was simply burned out. On the other hand, you rarely get burned out doing work you really love. And what's especially interesting, as the Journal reports, is that Apple appears to have bent over backward to keep him happy. After the launch of the Apple Watch, one of Apple's few brand-new product lines of recent years, and one Ive had fought for within the company, according to the Journal, Ive told Cook that he wanted fewer day-to-day responsibilities. So Cook created a new title for him--chief design officer--and accommodated Ive's desire to spend less time at Apple headquarters.
Not only that, but Ive was also much better paid than other Apple executives, sources told the Journal, and they said it caused some resentment among the company's other executives. (Apple has not disclosed Ive's pay.) And, some outsiders have speculated, Ive and his design team had free rein to design products exactly as they chose, which may have led to the $999 monitor stand that caused a commotion at the company's most recent Worldwide Developer Conference.
But here's what Ive didn't have, according to the Journal: regular, direct personal contact with and interest from Cook. Ive had a deep and personal relationship with Steve Jobs, Apple's late founder. The two would eat together and take walks together during which they exchanged ideas and made design decisions for Apple's iconic products. Jobs was a visionary and Ive could bring those visions elegantly to life. It was a symbiotic relationship of the best kind.
No one could really replace Jobs in that relationship. Jobs was irreplaceable in many other ways as well. But Cook, who's known to focus on Apple's operations and business results rather than on beautiful design, rarely visited the company's design studio according to the Journal. In particular, the designers would work hard to have their best designs ready for Jobs when they knew he was coming. Without that same attention, the design studio lost momentum, and Ive lost enthusiasm.
It's important to note that after the article appeared, Cook issued a statement calling it "absurd." Though he didn't specifically dispute facts in the story, he wrote this: "It distorts relationships, decisions and events to the point that we just don't recognize the company it claims to describe." But at the same time, Cook has defended his record and his focus on operations. And indeed, the operations-focused Apple has grown to be a much larger, more valuable company than it was when Jobs died.
Whatever the real truth is behind Ive's departure from Apple, the leadership lesson is this: Nothing you offer a key employee can compete with the simple act of spending time with that person. Talking to the employee, getting to know him or her, and letting the employee get to know you as well. As with Cook and Ive, you may have very different views about what your company needs and what's most important, and of course, as the boss, your opinion is what matters most. Some commentators are fond of saying that human attention is today's most valuable and sought-after resource. If you want to keep an important team member happy, you have to spend some of that resource to do it.