How to lead before, during and after

I could tell right away something was wrong when Sanjay, a VP from Amazon, jumped up to our regular Zoom call. The usual twinkle in his eyes was missing.

“Today is our RIF,” my client announced gloomily. “We had to let go of 70 people on my team. It’s so hard even if it’s right for the business. Everyone feels down.”

Unfortunately, Sanjay’s situation is commonplace these days. In fact, virtually all of my clients – executives from multinationals to small and medium-sized businesses – have told me the same story.

From the Great Resignation to the Great RIF

Amid ongoing economic turmoil and uncertainty, companies in the US are tightening their belts. Getting through these tough times requires cutbacks, but they often mean letting go of good people.

Ideally, those who lose their jobs will receive fair and equitable severance packages and help find their next big opportunity. While many American companies do this decently, many don’t. This forces former employees to be hard with far-reaching, sometimes devastating consequences.

But the people who stay who are employed after an RIF are also negatively affected.

The leaders acknowledge the toll for the remaining teams

I’ve worked with many executives who overlook the impact of RIFs on those who do them to keep their professions. In their relief from the stress of mass layoffs, these leaders are often unaware that the lucky ones might be:

· shocked and mourns the sudden departure of close colleagues

· Concerns about how their former co-workers are getting on

· Face the reality of doing more with less

· wondering if they could be next

The resulting emotional, mental, and physical pressure cooker takes its toll on those who stay busy. And it’s not just frontline workers. Supervisors, managers of managers, VPs, and C-suite leaders face a daunting leadership challenge: they must focus their teams on the organization’s mission and deliver results despite disruption, trauma, and heightened expectations.

Leaders illuminate the path to an RIF

Leading a team successfully through an RIF and its aftermath is often what separates average leaders from the true elite. As an executive at Microsoft, Novartis, and Kodak, I’ve faced this dilemma many times in my 25+ years in the corporate world. I’ve got the scars to prove it and seven lessons to share.

1. Follow the Golden Rule. If you must let people go, always treat them as you would like to be treated. Show respect to departing employees. honor their dignity. Use your authority and influence to ensure they receive fair and equitable severance pay and generous outplacement support.

2. Give space and affirmation. Your people will suffer, and it’s important to acknowledge that. Give them some time to grieve, offer open consultation hours to share their feelings, and consider offering professional grief counseling.

3. clarify priorities. Aside from supporting people emotionally, the most important thing you can do is get clarity about priorities. During a crisis, people often feel disoriented, so they need direction (and purpose; more on that in a moment). You need to define mission-critical work and communicate top priorities to your team.

4. Optimize systems. Automate as much work as possible and ruthlessly streamline processes. Let’s face it: with fewer hands on deck, you’ll have to cut back on work at the bottom of the priority list. It’s also important to balance workloads fairly, otherwise your employees will burn out quickly.

5. Stay the course. During the Great Recession, my CEO told me, “John, we need to keep our regular business rhythm going.” He was right. In the midst of disruption, people appreciate the familiar because it gives them a sense of normalcy. Consistency calms nerves in chaotic times and keeps people grounded in a storm.

6. Invest in the ones that stay. Disruptive times are crucial opportunities to show appreciation for your team by investing in them. Offering educational opportunities, social events, spot bonuses, public recognition and additional free time goes a long way in getting people through the tough times.

7. Show you a brighter future. These strategies only work if you can paint a vision of a compellingly better future and show the way to get there. People will only get through difficult times for so long – even with sincere appreciation and encouragement – if they don’t see a way forward to better times.

Most people will jump overboard immediately without a clear view of a future magnetic condition. Or they check out, go through the moves and then jumpship. None of the scenarios complete your mission.

Leaders cement a purposeful foundation

I am continually shocked at how few leaders adequately prepare for potential storms. Failure to do this when times are good can be seen as lazy or treacherous. Neglecting this commandment in difficult times is not only a waiver of duty, but often the drop that breaks people’s backs and brings the entire organization to its knees.

In contrast, elite leaders use the good times to carefully define their organization’s purpose (their reason for being and why anyone should care), their vision (a description of a better future), and the strategies and tactics that support it.

This is how great leaders trust to continue to inspire and motivate as they work hard times. Be sure to invest in working with your top leaders to create a compelling motivational framework that includes clear purpose, vision, strategy, and tactics.

Then act—with genuine compassion, focus, and commitment. You will find that you will be seen and followed as a true leader in good times and bad.

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