The typical corporate response to this question is simple: give them more money, give them more power, give them more perqs!
But in the startup world we do things differently and this can give us a sustainable advantage over traditional companies. We often lack the cash to give employees more money – founders themselves often go without salary for months. Founders tend to like flat organizations, power should be distributed based on need, not status. Perqs can be expensive, though enabling people to work at home or have more flexible vacation policies can benefit everyone.
But an article about Chief Design Officer, Johny Ive, leaving Apple has a different take on what it takes to keep a superstar like Ive happy. Apple tried all the big company methods of making Ive happy: reportedly the highest salary of Apple’s executives, a CXO title, ability to spend less time at Apple; the power to make product decisions. But they still lost Ive. According to author Minda Zetlin, Jony Ive Left Apple After Inattention From Tim Cook, Report Says, More money and the chance to work from home just weren’t enough – the title of her article.
Ive had spent 30 years at Apple. And the peak of those years were no doubt working with Steve Jobs, who took a maniacal interest in product design and development, as does Ive. Ive and Jobs were inseparable, eating lunch every, taking walks together, working together in the design lab. As Zetlin writes: Jobs was a visionary and Ive could bring those visions elegantly to life. It was a symbiotic relationship of the best kind.
Tim Cook is not a visionary and never claimed to be one. His forte is operations, and his brilliance at building, developing, and scaling Apple’s operations – the production and manufacturing of its products – was truly extraordinary and drove his rise to first Chief Operating Officer and then after Jobs’ death, to CEO. But according to at article in the Wall Street Journal, Cook rarely visited the company’s design study. Without the fuel of Jobs’ design acumen and ability to see around corners, and his laser-like attention, the design study evidently lost momentum and Ive lost enthusiasm.
Minda Zetlin concludes with a paragraph that is so important, so well written, and so on point that I’ll quote it in full, adding just some highlight of key points:
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.
Interestingly Apple made absolutely no effort to replace Ive. He was probably considered irreplaceable. Rather his duties were assigned to COO Jeff Williams. According to the press Williams is a sort of Cook clone, a master of operation but one who seems to take more of an interest in product design and development than Cook. While Apple hasn’t had a hit product of earthshaking important since the days of Steve Jobs, under Ive the wearables product line of the Apple Watch and Airpods has grown to over $5 billion a year. It will be interesting to see what new products emerge from Apple’s labs over the next few years and how many are the legacy of Ive. But as a founder your job isn’t to pay watch what megacorps like Apple are doing (or not doing), it’s to pay attention to your company. And how you allocate your limited attention span will be critical to your venture’s success; make sure not to forget your employees.