This is another installment of excerpts from my book manuscript of “More Human: A Journey To The Heart Of Great Leadership”.
This excerpt tells two very contrasting stories about a job of leadership that is never, ever, easy – having to let people go. There’s an easy and expedient way, one without context or heart, and a more human way, that requires forethought, empathy, and intestinal fortitude. In the end, it’s about doing the right thing for them, and, more importantly, for ourselves.
A Change Is Needed
“Disciplining yourself to do what you know is right and important, although difficult, is the highroad to pride, self-esteem, and personal satisfaction.” – Margaret Thatcher
One year on since our acquisition of our Rocky Mountain cable TV systems, there was a significant operational issue that needed our attention.
When we took over these properties, we were taking phone calls in 27 different locations, with 27 different phone systems, and 27 different ways of handling customers. As we added more services and created more complicated pricing and technical challenges for our agents, delivering consistent service would become paramount.
We needed a central call center.
A move like that would impact nearly every field office, affecting individuals who by and large were long-term employees – people with families & mortgages. Twenty-seven call taking locations would be shut down, and 90 people would get laid off.
The human impact scared me. We still had a long way to go to earn the trust and respect of the field employees, given the personnel shakeups, and union activity that we had dealt with in the past year. I feared this move, at this time, could cause repercussions that might prove to be unfixable. We could lose them permanently to distrust and resentment, and doom ourselves to mediocrity.
I wanted to be great. Mediocre was just not going to cut it.
I thought about how I had been in this situation before. It was not a good memory.
How Not To Fire People
In 1987, I was hired by a cable pioneer, Jack Kent Cooke, to be the VP of Operations for a cable company he had just purchased with over 400,000 customers scattered in 19 states.
Cooke was a self-made multi-millionaire who also happened to own the Washington Redskins, and the Chrysler Building, a New York City landmark. He had a reputation as a hard-charging, ego-driven, take-no-prisoners entrepreneur who liked having a lean operation. When it came to decision-making, he typically shot first and asked questions later.
After I arrived to start work in the home office in Los Angeles, we arranged a few introductory meetings to exchange pleasantries and information, but the big elephant in the room was what Jack was planning to do with the existing corporate staff up in Seattle that we had inherited in the deal.
The answer came pretty quickly when I got a call from Jack one morning.
“Terry, we need to let them all go. Please call them and tell them.”
Boom. I needed to fire 11 people, some of whom I hadn’t even met.
I had never fired anyone before and I thought about those people, their lives, their families, and what I was about to do. I was terrified.
But I didn’t question it. He wanted it done, and I wasn’t going to let him down, two weeks into THIS job. So I fired those 11 people, with perfunctory, impersonal, and utterly terrible phone calls.
There was one in particular that really got to me. It was the Marketing Manager, and he had been in the cable business for over 20 years.
“You’re kidding, right?” he coolly said after I told him we were letting him go.
“I’m afraid I’m not”, I replied, just as coolly, to make sure he knew I wasn’t joking.
It seemed like an hour had passed before finally, he said
“What am I going to do – I just moved here with my family, and bought a house. Why are you doing this – you don’t have a Marketing staff. What am I going to do? Why are you doing this?”
I eventually just blurted out, “I’m sorry”.
I was doing the “dirty work” of business, and it sure didn’t feel good. I felt very disconnected from it. And yet, it was something I knew I needed to file away for my future reference, in some file I labeled “How NOT to fire people”.
“They Need More Than a Letter”
This was this lesson that surfaced when we made the decision to lay off 90 people.
“It’s not going to happen THAT way. It just CAN’T happen that way.” I made myself a promise then and there.
Once I revisited that memory, I immediately had a different mindset – I couldn’t fight the change, but I was determined to influence HOW the change was made
My boss put me in charge of the project, from end to end. I knew it was going to be tricky, and there was going to be minefields, but I had a good sense of it and knew I was the right person to lead it.
We set up a planning committee and put together a detailed and tightly choreographed plan that included the technical logistics of the changeover, and a series of communications to the field that would formally announce our plan, and outline the consequences to those adversely affected.
We spent days writing and rewriting the announcement letter. We tinkered with the words, the tone, the sequence – everything. The preamble tried to put it all in context:
“Our journey together is about to move in a new and critical direction. In order to strengthen our competitive abilities and ensure our future viability as a strong and growing telecommunications company leading the way in all the communities we proudly serve, we have determined the need to centralize all in-bound sales and service calls into two call centers.”
As the release date approached, late one afternoon I sat in my office and stared at that preamble for what must have been 15 minutes straight.
Something didn’t feel right.Thoughts of what it would be like at the local level left me cold. Sure, it was better than a phone call and a “your services are no longer required, I’m sorry”.
And, certainly, there was humanity in that letter. It would be handed out by a local manager, who would have all the right corporate talking points for the immediate questions. The bases were all covered. It wasn’t a “lay off and run”.
But it still felt cold.
“This isn’t enough,” I thought. We needed something else to really get us beyond “morale killer”.
I knew this was a business. I knew these kind of things needed to happen if a business was to move forward and succeed. Tough decisions needed to be made. But that shouldn’t stop us from being human.
They deserved better than just a letter.
At that moment, I realized that I had the opportunity to truly make a difference as a leader. It was time to suck it up and do the right thing.
I was going to look each of those employees in the eye as I laid them off, no matter how difficult it was going to be to do it.
Face To Face, Tears and Hugs
I booked a two-week road trip to have “town hall” style meetings with all 90 of the laid off people, right after the formal announcement was made and the letters delivered.
The intention was to sit everyone in a close circle of chairs, and just listen.
It was a risky move, directly facing people that were losing their jobs, but my past experience with Cooke weighed heavily in my decision. They deserved to see me personally, ask all the tough questions, and get the “why” that I couldn’t explain 17 years earlier.
As I continued to prepare for my trip, the announcement came out , and we braced for the reactions.
Much to my relief, it turned out that all of our preparation had indeed made a difference, by paving the way for a productive visit. By the time I arrived at the offices to have the town hall chats, any bitterness or anger that might have bubbled up at the time of the announcement had largely faded.
However, it had been replaced with a general feeling of anxiety, for those leaving, and for those who would remain.
“What’s next?” I was asked, again and again.
The meetings themselves were low key and emotional – we’d form a circle of chairs in the break room, grab some coffee, and just start talking. I tried to look straight into the eyes of those we were letting go, and make it clear that while we were making a decision that was for the good of the business, we surely understood the personal effect it would have on them, and did NOT want to push that aside.
While there were a few people who couldn’t help but express some bitterness and disappointment, the vast majority of the people I spoke to were cordial, engaged, and thankful that I had taken the time to speak to them.
And there were some tears too. And a lot of hugs.
I couldn’t help but get emotional listening to some of the stories – people who had put in years of service, and were supporting a family, dealing with medical problems, or taking care of a parent. These were real people, with real fear in their eyes as to what was now ahead of them.
But we were there to hear them, and that was important – even though we were the ones responsible for that fear. And the “why” mattered to them. It wasn’t their fault and they didn’t mess up – and it wasn’t an arbitrary decision by a faceless corporation.
Respect And Acceptance (On The Edge of A Copper Pit)
Other people were watching all of this from the perimeter with great interest – those who were staying with the company. In almost every office I’d see several employees peering around the corner, sneaking a listen to what was going on. I knew that they’d be reporting what they saw to their colleagues later in the day.
In Colorado, one cable technician put it a little more bluntly when I ran into him on the way to his truck.
“Dude, that took balls. Thanks.”
I was getting huge kudos from that group, and as the tour reached its last couple of stops, the word had got around to the regional managers, and they were giving me feedback that could be summed up in one word:
They weren’t thrilled with being dragged into the 21st Century, because they were losing a great deal of autonomy. But, it appeared that because we took this action in such a human way, AND showed up to talk about it, we had earned something extraordinarily important.
It was a turning point, and by the last town hall in Butte, Montana, I knew it.
It was there I got the most tangible sign of the progress we had made in those two weeks. After the session, I slipped into a general discussion of my trip, and one of the techs asked me a question:
“Hey, have you ever seen the big pit?”
For a millisecond, I had a crazy thought – was this a pit they were going to throw me into because of the layoffs? Was I misreading this whole thing?
“The Copper Mining Pit – it’s a mile long and a half a mile wide. I guess you haven’t seen it, huh?
“So let’s go see it before you head out – it’s pretty cool”
So we caravanned over to Berkeley Pit, a former open pit copper mine, and parked at the viewing platform. It’s now a massive Superfund site because the pit is laden with heavy metals and dangerous chemicals.
It was so Butte to have turned this into a tourist attraction – it’s an old pioneer town with Irish roots, and a once thriving mining industry that is now long gone (but left a huge and dangerous legacy). The citizens here are tough cookies, so they knew “balls” when they saw them.
And by being invited to this place, a symbol of sorts, was a sign of acceptance.
We looked over this massive pit, and said nothing for a minute. The tech broke the silence. “That was a cool thing you did.”
“It was the right thing to do,” I said.
Indeed it was.