President Harry Truman once uttered the now famous phrase “The Buck Stops Here.” Truman was a man who stood by those words come hell or high water. He represented the truest form of leadership. Leadership is fine when everything is hunky dory. It is quite another thing when bad things happen, and you, as the leader, have to make decisions that affect people’s lives, and be accountable for those decisions. Truman was accountable, taking credit when credit was due, and accepting the blame when things went south.
Unfortunately, in today’s world, there are very few Trumans in leadership positions. People want the titles – President, VP, CEO, Director, CSO, CFO, COO etc. Looks good on the resume, LinkedIn and on your office door and business cards. On days when everything is going well, it’s easy to be a leader. It is when those days are darkest, that is when a leader’s mettle is tested, honed, and sharpened. When I say there are few Trumans left in terms of leadership, I am talking specifically about what has been taking place in the enterprise world in the past few years with regard to layoffs aka reductions in force (RIFs.)
Enterprises are for the most part, “at will” organizations. A person is hired to do a job and hopefully has wonderful experiences, benefits, and contributes to the organization. But everyone at will business knows they can be laid off at any time at the organization’s whim, based on economic realities. The tech industry is a perfect example and is the industry I served in for 16 years as CSO. When times are good, tech companies ramp up their hiring. When times are good, those same companies find themselves bloated, with too many people and decreasing revenue. In order to cut costs, typically, opex (operational expenses) such as headcount is the first to go.
Back in my day, when managers were told we had to cut headcount, there was a process in place that held us, as managers accountable for our decisions. We had to decide who on our teams were going to be the ones let go. Mind you, this is not an easy decision. There was no “fat” in our organization. We had all great employees, having weeded out the malcontents and bad apples over a period of years. So, we were being forced to make very hard decisions about wonderful people who were contributing to our organization and the company. It wasn’t just me, but my peers in our uber organization that we rolled up under, that were having to make those decisions. I used to smile inwardly when our boss passed the word from on high that we were going to have to let people go and the numbers each of us had to reach. It could be letting go two people or more than that. Some of my peers would argue and insist they couldn’t cut. But I knew that this was falling on deaf ears. My boss was merely relaying what the C Suite said to do – period. Our job was to execute that decision whether we liked it or not.
Sure, I worked with my own leadership team to make the decision on who was going to be let go. There were a lot of intense conversations that took place with my team leaders making the best cases they could for their employees to be spared from being let go. But it was ultimately my decision to make, and I had to stand by my decision. That was very hard, but it comes with the territory if you are going to be a leader. But that was only step one.
Step two was to actually conduct the RIF. And this is where I see the lack of leadership in today’s world. In my day, I, along with an HR associate, conducted the RIF in person. Man, was it ever hard! It is one of the worst, if not the worst thing a leader has to go through. Sitting across from someone you value and admire as a colleague, perhaps even as a friend, and having to tell them they are being let go. There is a knot in the pit of your stomach when you have to look them in the eyes and tell them they no longer have a job. And then the HR associate presents your employee with a package outlining what benefits they have for a period of time, resources to find other employment etc. But it is the look of shock, sadness, and surprise on the part of your employee that hurts you, as a leader, the most. We tried to be as human and compassionate as possible but in the end, that person leaves the room unemployed. When I left the room, I felt like someone had died in the family. I hated having to do what I did. But guess what sports fans, that is the negative side of leadership.
Today, I am incensed when I hear stories about how people are being laid off in the most impersonal and cowardly ways. I have had friends who were told to log into a Teams meeting only to be told they were being laid off. There are horror stories of people getting an email or text message telling them they no longer have a job. Or, when someone goes to their place of work, and their card access key is no longer valid as it has been cut off. Cowardly. The companies that practice this method of laying off people are unethical. You have to do this kind of unpleasant task IN PERSON. Companies like to talk about their employees as “valued,” “team members,” “associates,” but when the rubber meets the road, they are treated as mere numbers. A commodity to be traded away. That isn’t right and that isn’t leadership.
If you want the title of leader, then you have to take the good with the bad. You are one of the lucky ones if you are in a leadership position and have never had to let people go. Hopefully you never will. But if you are in a leadership position, if it is within your power to do so, do this unpleasant deed in person. Look the person who is being let go in the eyes. Show sympathy, concern, and caring knowing that what you are telling them is affecting their livelihood and maybe even their own self-esteem. These are people, not numbers on a CFO’s spreadsheet. Don’t hide behind virtual meetings to tell people they no longer have a job.
Do these companies think for one minute that if their people are let go in an impersonal manner, that it leads to greater loyalty from them or the colleagues they leave behind? Of course not. It breeds resentment from the ones let go and cynicism from the employees still working for the company. If a company preaches how valuable their employees are to them but at the same time, treats employees like dirt when they are let go, then that company is two-faced. The morale of their employees will suffer. I know from reading articles that in some companies, this is already happening. Not good!
When it comes to making hard, critical decisions, be a Truman. The buck must truly stop with you. It ain’t easy, but to be a true leader, you can’t escape this part of leadership. Don’t hide. Step up and be accountable.