The goodbye from recently ousted CEO Andrew Mason has to be the best sent by a just fired leader.
Having been involved in a number of departures by senior leaders (some voluntary, many not) it’s refreshing to see such candor and humility in an exit message.
Too often communications like this insult the intelligence of employees, shareholders and the business community at large by employing the stereotypical ‘want to spend more time with my family’ message that Mason mocked in the opening of his farewell.
Of course there can be good reasons for using this vague and oft repeated language – confidentiality agreements or concerns over legal entanglements that could result. Not to mention future employability for the person leaving. But for someone at the very top to candidly acknowledge that they got fired, and point to recent company performance as the reason is so shockingly irregular that much of the media coverage focused on the message from Mason, vs. the ‘what next’ narrative that most companies in a similar situation see from their first news cycle after a firing.
I’ve worked on communication plans for senior people that were involuntarily leaving companies who were colleagues, friends, adversaries, clients and all points in between. Rarely was there a situation where I didn’t feel at least some empathy for the one departing. No matter if they had been challenging, or even the worst type of leader (bullying, stubborn, generally disliked by the people they were to be inspiring) it was hard not to see them in those moments as people who thought they were doing the right thing, and somehow along the way managed to have it go(sometimes really really really) badly.
So with that in mind here are a few suggestions for working through something like this if you find yourself in the role of communications counselor to a soon-to-be-fired executive:
As much as possible, let them control the message. There’s nothing to be gained by publicly flogging someone on their way out the door. Of course you have to balance this with making sure the person exiting isn’t completely re-writing history or facts. But some forced public mea culpa isn’t the right alternative either. This is most likely why many people go with the ‘spending more time with family’ line. It’s impossible to argue with and in general is benign. However, if I’d had someone exiting who told me “I want to acknowledge my role in this, and what I’ve learned…” I would have been all for it. Usually people just want it over with though and the least painful path is the one most traveled.
Don’t BS the reality of what this means. The message around the person exiting is the most immediate and often personal of those involved in a departure. However, arguably the hardest message is ‘what’s next’? And what if it’s not the CEO leaving but part of their leadership team? Employees KNOW that this person isn’t leaving because everything was awesome and we’re all going to get ponies tomorrow. No, they’re gone because stuff is messed up, and you as the leader overall are expected to A) acknowledge what they know – yes things aren’t good and B) here’s how we’re going to fix it. It’s ok to say it’s not going to be fixed soon…or easily. But leaning on ‘we build great products’ or worse, ‘we have the best people’ verbiage is uninspiring and makes it look like you as a leader are grasping at straws. Guess what…a LOT of companies make great products. And every company has great people. Products can still fail and companies can tank. Talk specifics, talk vision and talk about the strategy and leadership you will deliver to get you there.
Move on and be present with employees as much as possible. If you’ve clearly stated what’s gone wrong, and what you’re planning to do about it, you don’t need to constantly flog yourself or the departed over it. It’ll only distract from what you’ve hopefully outlined as the way forward. This doesn’t mean ignore the questions and do your best to deal with skepticism head on (there will be some invariably…and not all of it will be unjust) while speaking about these things live and in-person. If your executive leaders don’t think the time after a big shakeup is right to get on the road to remote offices, or walking the halls of your biggest employee centers, then good luck on keeping any good will and trust gained in the near-term. People are generally willing to give the benefit of the doubt, to a point. But if weeks, or months go by (or worse years) with no substantive change then what started as skepticism becomes cynicism and it turns into an internal cancer that rarely can be rooted out.
Saying goodbye can suck, but it can truly be a way to simultaneously begin moving towards the future and the next thing – both for the one leaving and the company and people left behind, if done with a bit more honesty and transparency. It’s not easy, as Mason said in his note – I’m OK with having failed at this part of the journey. Everyone is going to fail sometime…being ok with that, yourself and learning from it afterwards is the admirable piece.