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Apple designing a HUGE change with a 1st new role

The roles, and leadership at Apple are starting to take on a very new, and possibly strange look. Does it matter to us?

Apple designer Jony Ive

It was all so simple

Apple’s management team had always been fairly easy to envision. For ages, we kind of knew where we stood.

The era of massive growth for the company came with Steve Jobs at the helm, and his right-hand man, or lieutenant, designer, Jony Ive, who was given free rein to create desirable, beautiful devices. Jobs once even said that Ive was the next most important person in the company after himself (or words very much to that effect). Design was once that indispensable to the Californian-based company.

That was then, though. Under Tim Cook’s tenure, the company is now very different.

Jobs biggest strength was as an ideas man. That is why the working relationship with Brit, Jony Ive, worked so well. Cook’s background, is the far less creative one of operations. Cleary, both very gifted individuals, they have bought unique elements to the company during their time in the top-spot.

But should the recent, apparent shift in priorities in leadership, be of concern to us?

Monday’s will never be the same

The working week at Cupertino, has, for the longest time, started off with a management meeting.

At that meeting, all relevant heads of departments are present – pitching ideas, updating the team, and also standing their corner for budget for the next project.

But, with Evans Hankey, the Vice President of Industrial Design, soon to leave, for the first time, there will be no directhead of design at those Monday management meetings. Hankey was hired as the direct replacement for Jony Ive, and is leaving after only three years in the role. People come and go, that’s one thing, but Apple has also announced that there will be no replacement named either.

Nope, moving forward, the team of twenty or more industrial designers will now report directly to Chief Operating Officer (COO), Jeff Williams.

Williams is seen, by most, as the man in waiting to take over the top job when Cook decides to step down. But, for a company that has been lauded over its design, to have no one in an executive role, overseeing product development, just doesn’t add up.

Once upon a time, the design role was seen as so vital, that a title of Chief Design Officer, was even created for Jony Ive. But, oddly, even in his pomp, Ive never made it to the cherished Apple Leadership page.

That to one side though, design was always a priority, and, under Ive, reporting directly to him for a time, were two more design-led men – Alan Dye, and, another Brit, Richard Howarth. The enigmatic Howarth, who studied at the same Bromley college as David Bowie, and Stella McCartney, has now disappeared in to the ether, as is common place for him. Dye, however, does remain, now heading up the software design team.

Enough on his plate

Williams, who joined Apple from IBM in 1998, holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering, not a design led degree, and is already responsible for overseeing Apple’s worldwide operations, and the company’s health initiatives. Sounds to me as if he has enough going on already, without adding hardware to his long, long list too.

This dilution of the importance being placed on design, may not be an issue now. Over the past few years, what with the success of M1 & M2 MacBook Pros, and Apple silicon in general, we have been spoiled with great, innovative design. But what about four, or five years down the line? Will the cupboard start to look a little spare, and boring, then?

The changes don’t stop there, either.

People need people

As the company faces increased pressure, from more retail outlets to unionise, the roles of retail management, and, human resources have increasingly come in to view.

For the past four years, Deirdre O’Brien has had a very odd ‘+’ in her title – Senior Vice President of Retail + People. She reports directly to Cook. Although an odd title to hold, which was never intended to be permanent, the position carries massive responsibilities. The largest group of employees that the company has, are in retail, thus, making her job vital. Her position, in theory, helps Apple connect, develop and care for their employees.

O’Brien was purely the head of human resources, before the departure of Angela Ahrendts, who was the Head of Retail. Adding retail to O’Brien’s role, made sense, as she’d been hands-on in launching many of the original retail stores. She’s been with the company for over thirty years.

Diversity also ended up falling under the gaze of O’Brien. Apple once had a dedicated Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion – Denise Young Smith. Smith was only in the role for six months, and left after making the controversial comment, – “twelve white, blue-eyed, blonde men could be diverse.”

Time for change

But, clearly, now is a good time for change. Apple is looking to expand retail to India, and Malaysia. That expansion program, of itself, will keep O’Brien busy enough, so her focus will revert to retail.

The first two stores in the UK are already in discussion with unions, and plenty more, globally, seem keen to follow their lead. There have been rumours of management bullying store staff, which has not slipped the attention of local, employment watchdogs.

I dare say, all this lead to the announcement last week, that a new role has been created for Carol Surface. She will join the company in March, after leaving her current role at Medtronic Plc. The role that Surface will fulfil, is that of Chief People Officer. She will also inherit the task of diversity, and inclusion.

Cook had always been clear in stating that the roles of retail, and HR, were specialised enough, that they should fall to separate people. Cook even mentioned it in an internal memo to staff, so why it has taken so long to come to fruition, is not, really, apparent.

Partly, I guess, it could be due to the slowdown of the retail expansion through COVID-19. But, with that now once again ramping up, and the employment issues I mentioned earlier, possibly Cooks’ hand, was almost forced.

Wrapping up

The fact that Apple doesn’t seem to feel the need to replace the position of Evans Hankey, has caught us all by surprise.

Admittedly, Apple has been running design by committee since Ive’s departure, but for a company that was once design led, and focused, this devolution, seems odd, and worrying.

Cook, clearly has his own set of priorities. The company has become one of, and by some metrics, the largest, and most successful company on earth, so, to cast any doubt on Cook’s leadership abilities, and ambitions, would be misplaced.

Maybe we have just got to get used to a new feel, and direction for the company, moving forward.

Possibly, it will now be more operations led, than design – whether that is a good thing or not, only time will tell.

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