First start-up. We’re between Layoff #2 and Layoff #3. There’s a new VP of Engineering running the show and while he’s been hired with the guidance to “turn the ship around,” the tech economy is a wreck and his first official act is throwing passengers overboard so we don’t sink.
Now this will be the third (and last) layoff. The existing team of three directors completed the first layoff under the first VP, the second under the interim VP (the head of Business Development… another story for another time). In each case, it started with an unexpected meeting late in the day after the executive team had reviewed the latest books.
It started with, “I’m sure we won’t need to do this, but can you take this here spreadsheet of your team and document how much each of them is devoted to this set of in-flight projects? Take your time.
24 hours passed and they walked into my cube, “Are you done, yet?”
You said take your time…?
“Yeah, I need the information in an hour. It’s critical.”
Fast forward four weeks and there are three spreadsheets of our three teams chockful of information regarding each employee. We are able to use this spreadsheet to understand who is on the team, their capabilities, what products they build, and what those product will contribute to the bottom line.
However, the three spreadsheets are biased. Each of the three directors has carefully built their spreadsheets to demonstrate why the humans on their team must remain. This does not meet the intent of the exercise which is to recommend a strategy that allows the company to survive. Both the first VP and the acting VP know we’ve done this and understand part of the job is a reconciliation of these disparate data sets.
It’s about as fun of an exercise as it sounds, but they each completed this complicated process by defining a set of principles, explaining them, and then applying them to our spreadsheets.
Yes, you’re drawing a line on this spreadsheet. The humans above stay, the humans below are let go. Yes, the application of these principles meant the lines shifted, often drastically, and that meant one director eventually was letting go of far more of their teams. It’s an awful process I wish on none of you.
And now it’s time for the third.
My co-directors already have the spreadsheet ready, we’ve done the drill, and we do exactly the same thing with our biased spreadsheets. Protecting the team, of course, but not helping the overall business.
When we handed our biased spreadsheets to the VP, he glanced at them, quickly discerned we hadn’t done our jobs, and said, “You need to cut more. This much more.”
Confused. “Aren’t you going to help us do that?”
“No, you’re a director. This is your job. By design.”
I’ve had this schtick on Twitter for years. Goes like this. I hear something someone randomly says and in my head I translate to what I believe they are actually saying. What they say is, “I think it’s pretty simple” and what I think is, “Based on your understanding of the parts you can see… which is incomplete.”
That turns into the tweet, “When you say “I think it’s pretty simple”, I hear “I think I understand the parts I can see”. It’s snark. It’s usually not what they’re actually saying, but comedy is where we park the things we are uncomfortable saying.
This inner translation dialog is a habit I’ve had long before Twitter existed and to this day I think of those two words hanging at the end of the new VP’s guidance on how to figure out who to layoff from the company. A reminder, he said, “No, you’re a director. This is your job. By design.”
When you say “By design”, I hear “I can’t be bothered to explain this nuanced thing to you.”
Back to Layoff #3. We, the three directors, did our best to come to an agreement, but we didn’t so we ended up with different principles for different teams. When it came to layoff conversations different teams were hearing different narratives and, of course, they were sharing this information both with employees who were leaving and those who were staying. Those who were let go were unclear why they were being let go and those staying were unclear why they were allowed to stay because different stories being told.
It was a disaster, it was inhumane, and I can’t think of a more defining lesson in my leadership career.
Your Job as a Leader
Your job as a leader is not to make the hard calls. That’s ego talking. Your job as a leader is to clearly explain how you made the hard call so that your team understands how you think, what strategy you are employing, and what principles you are following.
If you have no strategy, you take the time to define it. If you don’t have principles by which to make this decision, you work quickly with as many humans as possible to clearly define them. A principle is a fundamental truth. It’s a foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning and you bet they’re hard to define, but that’s your job.