Tough Choices, Great People and the Light That Continues to Shine

What I think about Moz, Mozzers and former Mozzers

[I wrote this post the night the changes at Moz were announced, but chose to hold it until I had time to process everything.]

When Jocko Willink learned the troops under his command had engaged in blue-on-blue (friendly) fire with other Navy SEALs, by accident, during an assault in Ramadi, Iraq, he threw himself on his sword, figuratively, when he met with his leaders, accepting full blame for the error.

“I am the commander,” wrote Willink, then head of Navy SEAL Team Three’s Task Unit Bruiser, in a new book, Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALS Lead and Win. “I am responsible for the entire operation.”

I thought of these words yesterday while listening to Moz’s CEO Sarah Bird as she talked of the brand’s new strategy and how executing it meant many of those who’d worked so tirelessly for the brand would not be around after the end of the day.

Having worked closely with the brand for nearly two years, two thoughts immediately jumped into my head:

  • “I wonder if anyone I know will be impacted?”
  • “I know A LOT of people there, so it’s nearly impossible I won’t know people impacted by the changes.”

Turns out some of the people I worked with most closely — Jen Lopez, Matt Roney, Erica McGillivray, Isla McKetta, Charlene Ditch and Jay Leary, among numerous others — are no longer with the brand, or won’t be much longer.

I was in Utah on what was supposed to be a back-to-school workcation with my daughters when I listened to the call and began to receive emails from people about how they wouldn’t be with the company anymore but how great their time with Moz had been.

They all agreed to stay in touch with former teammates continuing on at the brand.

Moz has built an enviable brand with great people, some solid products and a strong culture. But when profit is the yardstick you’re ultimately judged by, market forces are an unrelenting wind yielding to noone or nothing.

That wind has smacked me on my ass twice.

The impact is expansive

The first time it happened, I was shocked but not surprised. ESPN had recently sold off our division. When the new owners looked at my (very profitable) magazine, they didn’t see how it fit into their plans, so they sold it off and eliminated my job.

I wasn’t pissed it happened; I was pissed that I wasn’t better prepared, given that I didn’t enjoy the job anymore.

However, the move itself, by the new owners, made sense.

It was then that I realized how unsuited I am to work for a single brand and that doing my own thing was really the only path forward.

Then, in 2014, I made the dumb decision to go back in-house to help a very successful agency develop their enterprise content strategy practice, one I’d grow, develop and lead.

Despite my getting to create content strategies for some amazing large brands, the agency’s internal strife, born of personality conflicts among leaders at the top, meant we were never able to fulfill our work on the back end, and we lost clients as fast as we gained them.

I still remember my chief strategy officer opening my office door to say, “Will you meet me in [the CFO’s office]?”

I arrived to receive the news that my content strategy work had been “too successful, resulting in us bringing in so many strong, high-paying clients that we’d fallen behind on fulfilling our commitments for them.”

As a result, the agency was killing off enterprise-level content strategy and going back to their roots, Local SEO for SMBs.

I received this bit of news three days before I was to leave for MozCon 2014.

There was relief and frustration:

  • Relief that I hadn’t bought a house near the job, as I’d once planned but had earlier decided against
  • Frustration because I’d done what I was hired to do, and did it well, but the executives — by their own admission — refused to put the needed infrastructure in place for us to be successful

Candidly, I felt a little like Denzel near the end of Training Day — “You [MF’s] think you can do this to me?” — for how the executive team scapegoated content strategy.

I learned a lot in both instances, including how life-altering displacement can be.

The numbness subsides, but gives way to a painful process

In today’s challenging business climate, we all feel pressure to go all-in on our work. We wake up early, open work email right after Facebook, then answer messages on the ride to the office. By the time we arrive our day has long since started.

This means that so much of our existence is tied to our work.

For Mozzers and former Mozzers this fact is even more real, particularly for folks like Jennita, Erica and Rand, who’ve had a big hand in fostering the development of the vibrant community surrounding the brand.

Many people will always see them as synonymous with Moz.

And for those who’ve exited, or who are about to exit, that only adds to the pain.

When ESPN sold my company off and I was displaced 31 days later by the new owners, I stayed on for two weeks to push out the next and last magazine.

I remember the calls and emails pouring in, but I most vividly remember the sense of being cut off from my former life, that I would no longer go to Bristol, Conn., for training or have the opportunity to develop as a manager via Disney’s amazing leadership gatherings.

What I didn’t and couldn’t account for, though, is how awkward it would be for others to see me, their soon-to-be former colleague, still in the office.

“A lot of us wanted to say something, but we didn’t know what to say,” said one co-worker on my last day.

That struck me as odd at the time, but it made sense: People don’t usually stick around once they are let go. For me, printing the last magazine was my responsibility. Also, I wasn’t being fired for performance, or lack thereof.

But as my mind goes to some of my favorite Mozzers, Erica and Charlene, it occurs to me that some of the same emotions will likely be in play inside the office.

The six people at the top formed the core of the community team: Matt Roney (from bottom left), Erica McGillivray, Megan Singley, Danielle Launders, Jennita Lopez, Charlene Ditch

It’ll undoubtedly be weird seeing the pair “gone” but still around in the office for a few weeks.

Find solutions but don’t create ‘problems’ in so doing

The worst part about large-scale layoffs is how un-empathetic they can feel. It’s tough to view the “individual” when it’s a group, en masse, removed. The image in my head, from having witnessed the impersonal process at ESPN, is of a mass gravesite.

You don’t think of the one person you might know there; you think of that person as part of a much larger group, which layers the pain, emotion.

And, because such layoffs are almost always the result of chasing growth that doesn’t materialize, I wish leaders would step up beforehand, apprising the group of what’s at stake if the expected results never materialize: “We’re hopeful that these investments will yield [X results] in [this timeframe]. But given the investment we’ve made, should the results fail to meet our expectations, we will be forced to scale down staff.”

This would not be an easy talk, but it would certainly make everyone aware of (a) what’s at stake and, most important, (b) hint at the risk involved.

Last night, as I sat hunched over a computer trying to answer work emails, I began to think of how so many people have a deep affinity for the Moz brand. In large part, what they’ve become attached to are the people at the brand, people they’ve met online or in-person.

Those Mozzers who’ll be moving on undoubtedly know they contributed to the pride people feel in being associated with Moz.

However, what leaders at all levels inside the company must understand is that, while the displaced Mozzers know it’s through no fault of their own that they were laid off, saying this move is part of a solution (to become profitable) will surely make it hard for the formers to see themselves, and the great work they did, as anything but part of the problem.

I’m excited about the days ahead for the displaced Mozzers, who I know will continue doing great things for their new respective companies. I’m no less excited for Moz, which continues on as a vibrant brand thanks to many, many amazing people, some of whom are no longer around.

To my mind, as a community, continuing to root for Moz is not anathema to rooting for the Mozzers who’ve been asked to leave. After all, Moz is what/where it is because of many, many great people who’ve worked tirelessly to nurture, build and lead the brand.

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