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The Big RIF: How To Lead Before, During, and After

The 7 Steps to Surviving and Conquering the Storm

Blue sky with white clouds surrounding Black skyscraper buildings reflected in a puddle.

I could tell something was wrong as soon as Sanjay, an Amazon VP, hopped on our regular Zoom call. The usual twinkle in his eye was missing.

"Today's our RIF," my client volunteered somberly. "We had to let go of 70 people on my team. It's so hard, even if it's right for the business. Everyone is feeling low."

Sadly, Sanjay's situation is common these days. In fact, virtually all of my clients – leaders from multinationals to small and mid-size companies – have been telling me the same story.

From the Great Resignation to the Great RIF

In the face of ongoing economic turbulence and uncertainty, companies across the US are tightening their belts. While cutbacks might be needed to weather these difficult times, they often also mean letting go of good people.

Ideally, those who lose their jobs receive fair and equitable severance packages and support in finding their next great opportunity. While many American corporations do a decent job of this, many do not. This forces hardship on former employees, with far-reaching, sometimes devastating effects.

But the people who stay employed after a RIF are also negatively impacted.

Leaders acknowledge the toll on the remaining teams

I've worked with many leaders who overlook the impact of RIFs on those who keep their jobs. In their relief after the stress of a mass firing, these leaders are often unaware that the lucky folks remaining may be:

  • shaken and mourning the sudden departure of close colleagues

  • worrying about how their former co-worker friends will get by

  • facing the reality of doing more with less

  • wondering if they might be next

The resulting emotional, mental, and physical pressure cooker takes its toll on everyone who stays employed. And that's not just frontline workers. Supervisors, managers of managers, VPs, and C-suite leaders face a daunting leadership challenge: They must keep their teams focused on the organization's mission and deliver results despite the disruption, trauma, and increased expectations.

Leaders illuminate the path after a RIF

Successfully leading a team through a RIF and its fallout is often what separates average leaders from the truly elite. As a senior leader at Microsoft, Novartis, and Kodak, I confronted this dilemma many times over my 25+ years in the corporate world. I have the scars to prove it and seven lessons to share.

  1. Follow The Golden Rule. When you have to let people go, always treat them as you want to be treated. Show departing employees respect. Honor their dignity. Use your authority and influence to ensure they receive fair and equitable severance arrangements and generous outplacement support.

  2. Provide space and validation. Your people will be hurting, and it's important to acknowledge that. Give them some time to mourn, provide them with open office hours to share their feelings, and consider offering professional grief counseling.

  3. Clarify priorities. Next to supporting folks emotionally, the most critical thing you can do is provide clarity on priorities. During a crisis, people often feel disoriented, so they need direction (and purpose; more on that in a minute). You must define mission-critical work and communicate top priorities to your team.

  4. Streamline systems. Automate as much work as possible and ruthlessly streamline processes. Let's face it: With fewer hands on deck, you have to cut the work at the bottom of the priority list. It's also crucial to balance workloads fairly, or your people will burn out fast.

  5. Stay the course. During the Great Recession, my CEO told me, "John, we need to keep our regular business rhythms running." He was right. Amid disruption, people appreciate the familiar because it gives them a sense of normalcy. Constancy settles nerves in chaotic times and gives people solid footing in a storm.

  6. Invest in those who remain. Disruptive times are critical opportunities to show appreciation for your team by investing in them. Offering people educational opportunities, social events, spot bonuses, public recognition, and extra time off go a long way towards getting folks through the tough times.

  7. Show a better future. These strategies only work when you can paint a vision of a compellingly better future and map the way there. People will only gut out tough times for so long – even with sincere recognition and encouragement – if they can't see a way to better times.

Most people will jump ship immediately without a clear view of a future magnetic state. Or, they will check out, go through the motions, and then jump ship. Neither scenario accomplishes your mission.

Leaders cement a purpose-driven foundation

I'm continually shocked by how few leaders adequately prepare for potential storms ahead. Not doing so during good times can be seen as lazy or treacherous. In hard times, neglecting this leadership imperative is not only an abdication of duty, but it's often the straw that breaks people's backs, bringing the entire organization to its knees.

By contrast, elite leaders use the good times to carefully define their organization's purpose (its reason for being and why anyone should care), its vision (a description of a better future), and the supporting strategies and tactics.

This is how great leaders bank trust to continue to inspire and motivate during tough times. Be sure to invest in working with your top leaders to craft a compelling motivational framework that includes hyper-clarity on purpose, vision, strategies, and tactics.

Then walk the talk – with genuine compassion, focus, and commitment. You'll find that you're seen and followed as a true leader in good times and bad.


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