Jony Ive: how to respond when a rockstar exits your business

Jony Ive, the chief architect of ground-breaking and distinctive designs from the iMac to the iPhone, announced on Thursday that he is leaving Apple. Ive’s work seeded a tech revolution that has changed our lives. He was the key influencer on the simplistic designs of the most sought-after gadgets on the planet, curator and custodian of the Apple aesthetic. That aesthetic impulse dovetailed nicely with a business model based on frequent upgrades.

Ive’s mark is on everything Apple builds, from the airy, minimalist chic of its retail stores to seminal devices like the iPhone and iPad, newer pieces like the Apple Watch and the HomePod speaker – while Airpods look set to become another classic.

But Ive’s influence extended beyond hardware design. In 2012, he took over design of Apple’s software, which resulted in an overhaul of the iPhone’s operating system, iOS. Ive jettisoned the cutesy faux leather and paper icons and pseudo-3D textures, opting for flat and abstract iconography.

He has always sought to make things that aren’t just beautiful but are extremely functional too. He sees design about self-expression: the spark of a dialogue between inspiration and possibility; the idea sort of bashes backward and forward between a thought, a conversation, another drawing; it remains very fluid for quite a while.

Of the handful of companies that have defined C21st tech, only Apple sells its own hardware. It’s difficult to determine how much Ive’s physical designs contributed to Apple’s twenty-year growth, versus their software or marketing, but the look of the products is a big part of Apple’s brand. Ive was obsessed with the idea that the look and feel of a product was as important as the technology inside.

He gave Apple desirability. He stripped away layers of clunky technological design and created these incredible smooth shiny objects with rounded edges and fewer buttons. He applied the tradition of German modernism, which upheld the philosophy that less design was better, and simplicity was a desirable product attribute: the more you can reduce something, the more beautiful and functional it is. He created the ideal of a tech product, which was easy to use, beautiful and uncluttered.

Ive’s departure comes at a tricky moment for Apple, which became the world’s first trillion dollar company in 2018, but has faltered amid increased competition, slowing demand for smartphones, and the escalating trade war between the US and China. The company shocked investors in January when it downgrades sales forecasts.

The departure of Ive is the latest sign of major shifts in Apple’s strategy. Apple became one of the world’s most highly valued companies on the back of the iPhone, but sales of the device have begun to decline and it appears the age when hardware ruled everything has passed. Apple has begun openly discussing what’s next.

The most important thing is Apple’s culture of innovation. They are unbelievable in creating hardware, software and services, and getting them to work together. Increasingly, unifying the whole Apple experience over the individual product is showing up in their strategy. The biggest sign of change came in March when CEO Tim Cook discussed how the company was planning to launch a series of subscription services – Apple News Plus, Apple TV Plus, and Apple Arcade, a gaming service. There were no new hardware announcements.

Apple said that Ive’s role would be split, with Evans Hankey taking over industrial design and Alan Dye human interface design, reporting to COO Jeff Williams, an executive known for his operational skills, not his vision for product and design. The subtle demotion of the design group shows that Apple is emphasising its online services, the power of its components and how its products seamlessly work together, as opposed to their design. The design goal now is driving focus to the screen. A more distributed design decision-making process might be good for Apple.

Ive’s departure will not immediately impact. Apple still has talented designers, and the product planning process takes about three years, so it’ll be a while before we see the first products without Ive’s fingerprints on them.  Equally Ive’s departure may not hurt too much because of their new focus on streaming services. It’s not as if the iPhone and iPad, are going to see radical innovation anyhow, and these markets won’t see the sort of explosive growth of the past, thus there’s less need for a superstar hardware designer hanging around.

Although he’ll continue to work with Apple via his new design firm, where this leaves Apple and Ive with his new one-foot-in-one-foot-out job is unclear. Notwithstanding this, Ive leaves a yawning gap and is clearly irreplaceable as he has been one of the most important figures throughout the past few decades, his fingerprints are deeply woven within Apple’s core DNA. After the death of Job in 2011, it’s the most significant departure of somebody who was a core part of the growth story. Ive was Job’s co-founder of the second incarnation of Apple.

So how does Apple, or a startup, come to terms with the exit of a rockstar employee, or co-founder? The immediate concern is the impact on culture and loss of knowledge. Will this immediately have a downward spiral impact on the dynamics and confidence of the team, and their productivity? Here are some key steps to consider to address the issue.

Wish the former team member well privately and in public It’s not productive to be hurt or offended when someone leaves, on the other hand, you have everything to gain by parting on good terms. When a key team member leaves, understand and support the decision that’s right for him or her, thank them for their contribution, and wish them well. Do this privately and publically.

Maintain respect for the individual As a result of this approach, some of my best colleagues have returned to work with me, whilst others have become advocates. People leave for all sorts of reasons, many, if not most, of which will have nothing to do with you or your company, and everything to do with the life circumstances of the team member.

Be open and honest with your people The business need the straight story, authenticity in the face of what on the face of it is ‘bad news’, is what builds trust. It’s also important to be candid with your employees. Be clear that the departure is unwanted, change is unavoidable, but we have a solution to make it through the turbulence.

Move quickly to stop any false rumours, but don’t be afraid to show your vulnerability. If losing this team member is a big blow for you, tell them. Move on from the negative emotion of the moment by sharing your feelings, and see the challenge as an opportunity as a result.

Think it through, but do it quickly Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. When you get big news, you have to make big plans, and fast. Don’t get bogged down by emotion and stall from thinking about the next steps. Folk in the business don’t immediately need to see a plan, but they do need to know there will be a plan, and quick.

Ask your inner team for help Your team wants to help, they want to come together to overcome this challenge. You don’t have to take this on by yourself. It’s OK to say I’m really sad to be losing Jo, and it’s going to be tough to get through the next few months without her. I’ll need your help to explore all the options and come up with a plan by the end of the week. Show that you’re open to input for your proposed plan.

Build consensus around a plan, and implement it Many startup leaders fall into the trap of thinking they need to express boundless enthusiasm and confidence at all times, and always have a plan. If you come up with a plan by yourself and simply tell everyone else what it is, you’ll have less committed buy in.

Gather ideas from your team and let them create the plan with you. Focus on turning a negative into a positive. Ask for their input on how this situation provides an opportunity to do things better. As your team feels ownership, they’ll be more involved in overcoming the challenges posed by the loss of the team member.

Don’t assume you must instantly replace My preference is always to promote from within if possible, but now is the time to stay calm and think, not leap into a quick, knee jerk reaction. As the enterprise evolves, it’s imperative that you take time to evaluate the future options now available on role, skills and structure – a potential new hire could help the company with their new skills or fresh perspective – and only then determine how the role should be defined, who should fill it, and when. It’s better to make the right decision than a fast decision.

Discover your team’s hidden strengths A team may already have the resources it needs to still be successful, it may simply require some creativity and a return to basics. What talents have been hidden or lying dormant? What skills have never been shared or developed? Losing a star performer may provide a way to better engage and retain others.

See this as an opportunity for skills development and growth Every person has an inner drive to grow and develop, instead of viewing the loss as a vacuum in the business, reframe the situation as an opportunity to upskill the current team to a new level.

Steve Jobs and Jony Ive, the Jagger and Richards of Apple. Despite my thoughts on how to respond above, it’s impossible to see the company not stumbling now it’s without the most creative partnership in recent business history.

Both looked to the horizon beyond the day-to day, wanting to wrestle with the big things that made a difference. Both were relentlessly curious, fixated on following through until satisfied with the outcome, restless to a point of perfection.

With hardware getting harder, the focus of technological innovation has shifted to machine learning-based software running on cloud based servers, rather than individual devices. In smart homes, cars and wearable devices, increasingly the battlefield for tech giants like Apple, Google and Amazon, voice interfaces are more central than the tactile-visual interfaces Ive excelled in.

No wonder, then, Ive picked this moment to step away. His new firm, LoveFrom, will have Apple as a client, but Apple no longer needs him like it did. Once Ive stopped being essential, per his own paramount rule, it was time for him to disappear.

But the man who started his career by designing toilets and toothbrushes and ended up giving us the most profitable product in history is assured of his legacy. How Apple move forward with their strategy without his influence is a challenge many organisations face when they lose their own rockstar. It will be interesting to see how they respond.

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