After Letting Them Go

What to Tell Your Team After Losing a Leader

When you’re looking at professional sports, there are typically two ways that information is shared after coaches and executive-level management are dismissed. Neither of them are direct.

In one scenario, a team will have a disastrous season or two, and the coach or exec is fired without much ceremony. It’s usually a publicly anticipated move (see John Tortorella with the Canucks in ‘13/’14), and words aren’t minced. The second, less common method is what’s more of a ‘soft dismissal’ — they’re relieved in such a way that it appears to have been a mutual and exhaustive decision, a coincidental reaching-the-end-of-the-rope that makes the parting less a messy firing and more of an amicable stepping down (see Terry Francona with the Red Sox in 2012).

You see the latter approach with esteemed members of a sport’s pantheon, or with those that have contributed tremendous value to an organization over an extended period of time. It’s PR and information control at work.

Luckily, at most tech companies, the PR machine doesn’t need to be as massive as the one serving Red Sox Nation. It’s always tempting to play that game and think that you’re going to be facing reporters later with your prepared statement, but let’s be serious— one of the great things about working at a smaller business is the immense value placed on information access, honesty, and the avoidance of bullshit.

When a senior member of staff leaves a company — big or small — there’s a perceived balance between doing what’s needed for the business and somehow incorporating small-scale PR to make the news less impactful. After all, a dismissal at the management level affects an entire organization, and it’s easy to assume that a change this big will mess everything up. The information around the event becomes sacred. Does it really need to be?

For example, let’s say you brought on a manager who, six months in, was at odds with their entire team. They were condescending, rude, and you received several complaints from their direct reports. The decision to fire this person is easy, but how is it communicated amongst the entire company? Are they shamed in a company wide email for going against the grain, or would this be viewed as a mercurial move? Are they given the PR-friendly “It just wasn’t working out, and we wish them the best”, or would that not make you look responsive enough (after all, you’re responding to complaints from your team)?

There are arguments to go each way. On one hand, it’s easy to default to the “It just wasn’t working out” side, since during this time, you’ll be concerned that anything more specific than that will cause panic and disorder in the organization.

But before you start weighing each side and creating your equivocal statement, remember that your move probably won’t end up in the papers. You don’t have legions of fans desperate to know that things are okay on the management level. You aren’t trying to hold a stock price. Your only responsibility is to do right by your team.

If this hypothetical person was a nightmare to work with, you need to be clear with the team that this was the reason they’re gone. They will respect you and appreciate the fact that you released an important part of the organization simply because they didn’t align with the values of the company. Conversely, if it was all on you and you hired improperly for the role (which is common when hiring executives, since it is often based on credentials and ambition rather than fit), there is no shame in telling your team that you made an error of judgment. When you’ve got a small team that follows and trusts you, there’s never value in adding spin.

Honesty is often not something that you judge; it’s something that you feel in your nerve endings. There’s certainly a reason why people work at your business and not one of the Goliaths, and it probably has a lot to do with your tight-knit team that steers clear of politics and bullshit. Do right by your team, treat them like adults, and don’t be afraid to give them the straight truth. They’ll appreciate it.

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