As a journalist, I have often written about the devastating effects of layoffs — of the shock and the pain for people and families and organizations. On at least two occasions, with GE’s Jack Welch and Apple Computer’s John Sculley, I’ve helped to put into words the emotions of leaders who have made those tough choices. But I never had to make such agonizing decisions myself.
Until now. It was one of the most difficult things I have ever lived through. Like any manager, I’ve fired poor performers before. But this was different: I had to lay off people whose work wasn’t in question. Our parent company, G+J USA, has to get its costs in line with declining revenues. Virtually all of its seven magazines, including Fast Company, were asked to cut costs and head count to help build a stronger company for the future.
It’s a lucky leader who hasn’t had to confront this economic reality. Welch, whom I worked with for a year on his biography, reduced GE’s 411,000-strong payroll by 112,000 in his first five years as CEO in the early 1980s. Sculley, whose biography I also cowrote, had to lay off one out of every five employees during a low point in Apple’s history.
I understood the need to reduce our costs, but it didn’t make the job any easier when I was asked to lay off 4 of our 27 employees. In a workplace as small and intimate as ours, it’s never just an employee you lay off. Instead, you lay off a friend, a colleague, an extended family member. Just thinking about who would have to be on the list was a heartbreaking, emotionally exhausting exercise. I didn’t think in numbers. I thought in faces, and of the smart and talented individuals behind those faces. I thought of the contributions each person has made to make this magazine the very best it can be.
When I joined Fast Company as editor 18 months ago, I asked for the kind of commitment that would require everyone to pour their hearts into this magazine. The writers, editors, and art and production staffs have done so with a fervor and sense of purpose that surprised even me. And now, my response had to be to let some of these people go. That hurt. At one point, I wandered outside our New York headquarters, sat alone in a nearby Chinese restaurant, and nearly cried at the thought of it.
Frankly, I wondered if I was up to it. I questioned my own ability to lead the organization if I couldn’t face up to the hard facts and the tough decisions that go with any leadership job. And yet, I also felt the need to appear upbeat and optimistic as I saw increasing worry etched on the faces around me. Some staffers came into my office asking if their names were already on “the list.” The distraction of an impending layoff was harrowing and sad for everyone.
Shortly after my lunch, though, something remarkable occurred. Five of my most senior employees offered to take pay cuts if that would save a job or two. One of this magazine’s best journalists suggested going off payroll to work as a freelancer to save money. Another volunteered for the layoff, using it as an opportunity to try something new. Those selfless gestures reminded me of how successful we’ve been at creating a true community here, an organization with soul and heart.
Ultimately, we were able to meet our cost-reduction goals with minimal pain, maximum compassion, and, I believe, no impact on the quality of the magazine. And as always, our work here goes on. As I reminded our staff recently, we create our own job security by doing our best work. As long as our work makes us grow, as long as we gain personal fulfillment from it, we are building our resiliency for an uncertain future. The Brand Called You, as if I have to remind any of our readers, remains an essential career survival skill.
But in the past few months, I’ve learned something else: The Brand Called Us — the relationships and mission we share with other human beings — is just as important.