If you work long enough in today’s dynamic media and entertainment industry, chances are you will get fired.
NBC Universal and WarnerMedia recently began large-scale layoffs as they scramble to cut costs and reorient their businesses toward streaming. News organizations, already struggling before the pandemic, are cutting more jobs as a hoped-for advertising rebound has failed to materialize.
Our time came in 2019 when our roles were eliminated in a major corporate merger. In spite of our successes—which included a creative rebrand, financial growth and Emmy-nominated shows—we were asked to leave WarnerMedia’s TruTV
We’ve all seen or heard of leaders’ unfortunate departures in this business. Enactments of tantrums and revenge are industry legend. When being asked to leave a job you love, the instinct to pack up, walk out and never look back is understandable. But there are also examples of elegant exits, like the gracious and touching sendoff Viacom CEO Tom Freston received, as hundreds of employees filled the lobby to applaud him on his final exit from the building. When your time comes, you have a choice to make.
Years earlier, a friend shared some wise words about leaving a job. “It’s like mountain climbing,” she said. “Everyone focuses on your ascent, but no one teaches you how to climb down, and that’s actually the most dangerous part. That’s when you’re likely to slip and fall.” Whether coming down from a layoff or toward retirement, her analogy was perfect for the challenge we all encounter at some point in our careers.
Faced with how to safely manage our own descent, we decided to remain accessible, rather than hide and lick our wounds. Though advised to do otherwise, we wanted to share the news with staff in person, rather than by a company-wide email. Our team had always embraced difficult moments with humor and determination, and this would be no different. Besides, this would be our last chance to make a positive lasting impression. We were not going to waste it.
The morning of the announcement, we took our places in front of 125 hardworking and talented team members. We knew those faces so well. Amid a few false starts (and full disclosure, some tears) we delivered the news and watched as everyone processed what this might mean for their own careers. This moment of togetherness and vulnerability—this collective grief—laid the groundwork for everything that happened next.
We spent the rest of that week cleaning out files, walking the halls, and saying heartfelt goodbyes. One afternoon, a colleague said, “Come to the conference room. You have to see this!”
With more layoffs looming, members of the marketing department had organized a DIY job fair for all the employees. Multiple stations were set up around the room. One table was for résumé feedback. At another, members of the social media team advised on Instagram and LinkedIn profiles. A photographer snapped headshots. People expressed themselves on flip boards. One read, “You can strive for greatness and still be kind.”
Looking around the room, we were completely overwhelmed with pride. They had taken our network’s mission—”to build a creative environment where talented people could accomplish great things and have fun doing it”—to new heights. In that moment, our collective efforts came full circle, and our time together felt complete. Looking back, that moment was an unexpected peak experience in our careers. It reaffirmed our bonds and allowed us to leave, heads held high, no regrets.
Coming down the mountain is one of the hardest professional challenges you will face, and it’s the one that no one talks about. We’ve chosen to reframe the narrative around professional exits by breaking the stigma and discussing these all too critical, and increasingly common career transitions. Had this experience happened after mid-March 2020, we would not have been able to connect in person with the only people who could truly understand. For those working from home, feelings of disconnection and loss can be magnified but the takeaway from our experience still applies. Here’s our advice:
- Lead by example—to the end: By sustaining professional grace through even the most awkward moments, you will inspire the next generation to carry that forward.
- Stay Focused: It’s critical to maintain focus in your final days to ensure that projects and people can transition smoothly. Put personal feelings aside for the good of your team and your investment in the company’s long-term success.
- Be Accessible: Don’t disappear. Be available via phone, Zoom or in person. Make an effort to connect with co-workers who matter to you. Tell them about the impact they have had on your life and you will likely receive uplifting feedback in return.
- Acknowledge that Change is Difficult: Leadership changes often foreshadow larger staff reorganizations. This understandably creates anxiety, whispers and distractions. Allowing for collective grief serves a purpose. This helps to give people some closure on one chapter so they can prepare for what comes next.
If you can resist the urge to storm out the door–if you’re given the chance to make a graceful bow—do it. True leaders in any field know the value of a smooth and thoughtful transition of power. There is great strength in an elegant exit.
Chris Linn is a media executive and adviser who has held senior leadership roles at truTV, MTV, and Nickelodeon.
Marissa Ronca is a television executive with two decades in media. She has launched shows such as Impractical Jokers and Emmy nominee At Home With Amy Sedaris.