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Managing through a seismic departure shift within an org

Company Culture
Succession Planning
Health / Stress / Burn-Out
Hiring

6 February, 2019

Will describes how he and his colleagues help the organization bounce back following the unexpected death of the CEO.

Problem

Our CEO passed away suddenly and caused a seismic shift in our organization. The following 6-9 months were chaotic including hiring a new CEO from the outside that didn't work out to eventually hiring our latest CEO, who was originally on the board. At that point, most of the executives left the company and we layed off almost 100 people from our sales team. The company was going through great change with new departures seemingly every week.

Actions taken

When a company feels like it's going into a free fall and every week, a new person resigns, it's normal for employees to reconsider if they should continue with the company. As part of the leadership team in Engineering, we took the following steps:

  • Maintained strong team communication in an authentic way about people leaving and that we were in the midst of change.
  • Individually reassured key engineers and other top talent to both set them at ease and get a sense how they are feeling individually
  • Started hiring and communicating those wins to the team
  • Kept the focus on moving forward and shipping new features

Lessons learned

First of all, when you are in free fall, it feels like there will be no end in sight. In reality, it will get pretty bumpy for a time but the clouds will eventually clear as long as the business is still healthy and employees can continue to contribute and grow. Early on, it's important to communicate about departures in an authentic way both in that there have been some changes to the org but that the company you joined and loved will still exist and that this is a moment in time. It's important in general to thank outgoing employees for their contributions but I think it's more important to do so in times of great change. Second, you need to re-hire. Those new hires bring a more positive mindset and renew the enthusiasm for the company. They see the company for what it is, not what it used to be like, and their excitement can be contagious to the rest of the org.
You also need to get back into the rhythm of shipping code. Getting back into the basics helps bring the team back into the normal flow. Setting realistic goals for the existing team, having a vision and direction for the org, and continuing the rituals and cultural touchstones that the company has reinforces while some things have changed, much still remains the same.


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