As a business leader, your values, ethics, and integrity are regularly tested by the dynamics of business life. Whereas there are some situations where there is a clear line between right and wrong, many business situations put leaders in situations where the lines aren't clear. In some situations, you can even do the absolute right thing for the business but do it the wrong way.
Warren Buffet - one of the biggest names in business - even talks about how critical it is to assess and hire for integrity when bringing new leaders onto the team.
Early in my career when I was taking on people leadership responsibilities for the first time, I often asked myself if I would have the courage to do the right thing the right way if (and when) confronted with difficult business decisions. One very real experience that I lived through helped cement a really important values-based concept for me:
Sometimes you have to make really hard business decisions that are right and critical for the business. Sometimes, those same business decisions that are absolutely right for the business can result in people being negatively impacted. But you have to do it anyway. So how you do it - with a human focus - is critical.
Many of us have had to deal with that a number of times in our leadership lives. Here is that story, how everyone ended up actually winning (even through short term loss) and why the human focus was the reason behind it.
A Real Story About Layoffs and Doing Things the Right Way
To make a long story short, within the first 90 days of my leadership role at the company I worked for, I ended up having to lay off about half of my staff across several departments. It wasn't pretty. It wasn't fun. But it was necessary for the business for a variety of reasons.
As part of those layoffs, I had to lay off three of the five Directors who reported to me. Whereas I hadn't worked with them for very long, in that short 90 days we had developed strong relationships and had become a well-oiled machine based on mutual respect, teamwork, and a shared vision for change.
One of the three Directors I had to lay off was someone who I thought had the greatest potential. He was really smart, always got great results, and was a lot of fun to work with. But given the changes in the company, there wasn't a role for him (for a variety of good and admittedly not so good reasons). I pushed back as hard as I could around the role being eliminated and struggled quite a bit with having to lay him off.
The day came, and we sat in my office as I gave him the news. He was a smart guy and had predicted that there was some chance this was going to happen. We talked for quite a while. I volunteered to help him with networking, be a reference, and whatever else I could actively do. And so the relationship continued beyond the layoff.
He, of course, found another job, and we stayed in contact while he worked at his new company. I frequently had calls with him to coach and mentor him in his new role in his new company. Maybe it was out of lingering guilt, or maybe it was because I just genuinely wanted to do the right thing and make things right. It's hard to say in retrospect. What isn't hard to say is that we kept a human connection even through the difficult layoff experience.
But here's the interesting ending to the story that re-affirms why it is so important to handle these hard business situations with that human focus. Things happen that you can never predict:
I ended up leaving my company about a year after laying him off to start my own business consulting firm. I've been running that business for almost a decade now. In year two - during my early stage fledgling years - I got a call from him. He didn't want mentoring or coaching. He actually wanted to hire me and my firm to provide consulting to the company where he now worked. I thought about it for a minute:
The person I had let go directly facilitated my business getting some really important client work.
That client has become a main stay and continuously growing client of mine for the past seven consecutive years even though he no longer even works there. My business has seen significant financial and even relationship network expansion benefits from this client. And I never would have gotten that work without the person I had to let go calling and getting me in there.
Of course, I didn't manage that difficult business decision with a human touch with this as my long term goal. Based on values I thought were important, I simply tried to do the right thing. In turn, we both ended up winning.