How To Lead After Layoffs: Learning From Microsoft

By

Lim Lay Hsuan

23-07-2015

3 min read

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Job cuts at Microsoft hit nearly every division of the company in September 2014 in the second wave of the company’s larger plan to cut 18,000 employees, as announced in July last year.

The events surrounding a layoff are, sadly, quite predictable to those of us who have seen it often. But only rarely do we witness leaders who understand how to effectively lead their people through the layoff and even take advantage of it.

There is a huge difference between those who “minimise the disruption” and those who effectively recognise the need for change “now more than ever before”. With disruption comes the opportunity to challenge traditions, decide how to improve work processes and focus people and teams on the actions that actually contribute to winning and results.

First – how not to lead

In Microsoft’s case, the initial communication about the layoffs back in July 2014 was a textbook flop. A wordy 1,100-word company email announced the layoffs all the way down in the 11th paragraph, so far buried in management terminology as to be lost to the casual reader.

The letter was authored not by Microsoft’s CEO (chief executive officer), Satya Nadella, but rather former Nokia CEO and executive vice president of devices, Stephen Elop.

Unfortunately, this kind of oblique and impersonal manner for announcing layoffs is often par for the course. Many leaders have followed a similar pattern with past job cuts: filing for a layoff in accordance with federal, state or local regulation or statutory requirements; announcing the layoff to the entire company; communicating uplifting messages to the press about developing new strategies to foster growth; and encouraging managers to redistribute work among remaining employees.

This kind of arms-length process can breed feelings of insecurity and anxiety among remaining staff members, emotions that often hinder innovation and creativity, as well as erode employees’ trust in the company.

As a result, individuals “keep their heads down” and “focus on doing the job” until things “blow over” – while also updating their resumes and putting out feelers.

Every once in a while, however, we find a leader who realises that his/her people are the heart and soul of the company and key to improving the bottom line.

This kind of leader understands the importance of helping remaining employees rebound quickly from a period of layoffs and, in turn, works to raise urgency among staff members to refocus on a future vision, leveraging the turmoil of the event to challenge the old ways of working and thinking.

How visionary leaders shift from ‘crisis’ to ‘opportunity’

1. Clearly define the vision for succeeding with the resources at hand

Layoffs can seem to pull the rug out from under a company. They change how leaders and employees define success. Creating clarity about how the organisation wins in the marketplace today, now, with what we have (not what we wish we had) is critically important.

How will we compete now? What can we do to change the game? What can we decide to stop doing because we don’t have the staff and it doesn’t add any value? These questions empower the organisation to move forward in a period of extreme change.

2. Get urgent about the future

Now is not the time to wait. Though the instinct may be to “let the dust settle”, layoffs usually indicate that what worked in the past doesn’t cut it anymore. Instead, leaders must focus quickly on making key decisions, taking some risks and looking for new ways to get better results in the future.

By promoting a test-fast, fail-fast mentality that rewards innovation and risk-taking, leaders will prevent fear and uncertainty from defining the corporate culture.

3. Question and challenge ‘how it’s always been done’

Rather than working harder and longer, the best companies today work better. The period of change around a layoff is a time when managers and supervisors should be giving their teams permission to challenge old assumptions and ways of doing business.

To keep remaining staff from burning out after a layoff, leaders should ask key questions, such as, “Is there an App for that?” or, “Can we shorten that meeting or eliminate it altogether?” By giving employees permission to challenge the way things have always been done, the resulting innovations may save wasted time and effort.

Everyone is involved

Layoffs affect everyone. Consequently, individuals at all levels play an important role in recovering from job cuts. As the company reorients and begins to build a new and more successful culture for the future, leaders must encourage their people to take ownership of their time, eliminating frustrating and unnecessary work, and to bring fresh and better ways of working to the surface.

Both will help employees feel empowered to creating positive changes, as opposed to insecure and fearful throughout the transition. The companies that successfully weather the turmoil of layoffs are those where leaders are able to instill urgency, create clear vision and empower broad-based action toward realising future opportunities.

Ken Perlman is an engagement leader at Kotter International, a firm that helps leaders accelerate strategy implementation in their organisations. This article originally appeared on Forbes.com, and is reposted with permission.
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