Earlier this month, Better.com CEO Vishal Garg told 900 employees to join him on a Zoom meeting, during which he told them they no longer had jobs at the company. It was all apparently part of his effort to create a "leaner, meaner, hungrier workforce," at the online mortgage company. Garg later told other employees that some of those who were let go were "stealing" from the company by only working two hours a day.
The move to fire 900 employees via Zoom generated a considerable amount of criticism both inside and outside the company. Despite the fact that Garg later issued an apology--sort of--several of the company's executives resigned, including its head of communications and head of marketing.
"I want to apologize for the way I handled the layoffs last week," Garg wrote in a blog post. "I failed to show the appropriate amount of respect and appreciation for the individuals who were affected and for their contributions to Better." Now, Garg himself is out--at least for now.
An email to employees from the board of directors that was first reported by Vice said that Garg is "taking time off effective immediately." The company's CFO, Kevin Ryan, will manage the day-to-day operations and report to the board.
In its email, the board said the company was taking steps to "build a long-term sustainable and positive culture at Better." We'll come back to that in a minute because it's important.
First, it's worth mentioning that this isn't the first time that Garg has shown a lack of people management skills. Last year, Forbes obtained an email from Garg to employees that said:
"You are TOO DAMN SLOW. You are a bunch of DUMB DOLPHINS and ... DUMB DOLPHINS get caught in nets and eaten by sharks. SO STOP IT. STOP IT. STOP IT RIGHT NOW. YOU ARE EMBARRASSING ME."
Previously, Garg had threatened to set a former business partner on fire, and engaged in hostile exchanges with investors, calling one "sewage" and demanding he divest from the company.
All of this comes as Better.com has been preparing to become publicly traded through a SPAC merger. Earlier this month, the company announced it had received an early cash infusion of $750 million, half of what it expected to raise from the deal from SoftBank and Aurora Acquisition Corp.
On the one hand, it's understandable that the CEO of a company getting ready to go public would take steps to shore up the company's balance sheet and cut unnecessary expenses. That might even include laying off unproductive employees. That isn't the problem.
Garg may well be a visionary with an incredible idea and the skills to execute that idea. He may have founded the most innovative consumer mortgage firm in the history of real estate. I have no idea, and I don't know enough about him or his company to really get into it.
What should be painfully obvious to anyone watching this series of events is that Garg has a people management problem. That means the company has a people management problem, which is evidenced by the number of employees who have spoken about its toxic culture.
Better.com's board says it has hired an outside firm to do an assessment and provide recommendations to help it improve its culture, but if the first recommendation isn't to find a new CEO, anything else it might suggest is a waste of time and money. Why? Because culture flows out of the integrity and character of the person at the top.
The most important thing you do as a leader isn't setting a strategy or communicating the vision--it's leading people. That's the number one job. Obviously, a CEO with thousands of employees can't directly lead every employee, but they set the tone by their words and their actions.
Unfortunately, leaders are often rewarded for results won without regard for the impact they have on real people. That's especially true when a company is private and founder-led. Often, no one is willing to tell a leader in that position that they're wrong.
In this case, that problem appears to be made worse by the fact that Garg's response to any kind of challenge is to lash out. Eventually, people start to avoid any kind of confrontation, even on really important issues. It's just not worth it if you know you're going to get attacked.
For a company getting ready to go public, that can be fatal. If no one is willing to speak up because they're afraid of the boss's wrath, all kinds of things start to fall through the cracks. Those things might be small now, but things tend to accumulate in those cracks, and eventually they become big issues.
"We have much work to do and we hope that everyone can refocus on our customers and support each other to continue to build a great company and a company we can be proud of," the board wrote in its note. That work starts with needing someone at the top who can manage people.