What’s up, everybody?
This week we turn our TalentStories gaze towards mass layoffs in the tech sector. This, after big cuts at Amazon, Microsoft and Google.
The point we’re here to make, though, isn’t just about the human toll these layoffs take on individuals and teams ⬆️, but about the leadership failures that underlie them.
From our 3 Stories we learn:
- Tech firms made jaw-dropping numbers of hires before and during the pandemic, in some cases adding tens of thousands of employees as recently as late last year. All just prior to letting go of thousands of them, here in Q1.
- In the same breath with which tech CEO’s sent thousands of teammates packing, they also messaged to their remaining employees that they are - now - keen to run a tight ship and do away with bloat, inefficiency and sloth that characterizes their companies.
- A brief quote from a long-time tech player lays out the harsh reality of management and leadership plaguing not just tech, but industries and companies generally.
Alas, we’ve only got 3 stories per week to work with, folks! But while we’re here, we’re going to shout out a couple of the other relevant leadership failures:
For one, there’s the deplorable execution. Time and again, news of the layoffs has come over email ; overnight, for many in some parts of the world; and/or by barring employees from systems and tools without explanation.
Implementation aside though, what these innovative companies have proven is that when it comes to people, they are simply excellent copycats: as acquisitive as one another during their growth phases as they are quick to cut costs in downturns. And the “shock” rollout of the cuts; the mea culpa, “This is on me” CEO emails; the shocking indifference to how they will be perceived (there is no way they don't know how bad this looks) -- it all just reeks of the same: the same behavior, the same “safe plays”, the same empty language, the same self-preservation.
You can call it logical; you can point to the incentives at play. To activist investors, and margin pressures, and the harsh reality of the profit motive that guides organizations. Just do us a favor -- don’t call it “leadership”.
Which brings us to the most damning aspect of all: the glaring lack of accountability. Taking responsibility for decisions is well and good, but what does that even mean when leaders are not also held to account for them? What impact does it have on our TalentStories line of inquiry -- understanding why and how work is changing -- when hundreds of thousands of tech employees (and millions of others) see this news, watch the brutal implementation of the cuts, read the “my bad” CEO emails -- and also see that there is no downside for the leaders who messed up? None of those leaders have lost their jobs, or appear in danger of losing them; most of them, in fact, are still earning tens of millions in compensation.
The impact of episodes like this is the same at work as it is in other realms: it erodes trust. It creates the perception of “rules for thee, but not for me”. And it explains and accelerates two of the major trends driving the future of work: its ongoing decentralization, and the continued reimagination of work being undertaken by employees.
We want to end on a positive note, and state that to the extent these cuts represent business as usual, copycat behavior and poor leadership, the opportunity also exists to stick out and differentiate by leading. The opportunity -- the need -- absolutely exists for organizations to train their managers to operate and lead better. In short, to reimagine how they run.
Thanks for reading, and thanks for exploring with us. 🙏
Aki + Usman
P.S. Our 13-minute podcast discussion of last week’s newsletter on how to mine career gold in the future of work is right here.
We’ll save you the math: the purple #’s above show that ~970,000 employees were hired by six tech giants between the very start of Covid in Q4, 2019, through to Q3, 2022. And yet, here we are: not even a full month into Q1, 2023, and the same six firms have already laid of 58K employees.
By the by, conspicuously absent from this chart -- and from layoffs to date -- is Apple. And there is no guarantee it will continue to weather the storm. But the company does serve as an interesting counterpoint. Because it’s tempting to see this layoff news and think, “It is what it is, it’s just how companies work”; it’s hard for CEO’s of big companies -- now capable of measuring each and every aspect of their business -- to plan well (or to learn from history, for that matter). But if you are tempted to believe this, then it’s also worth noting, as the Wall Street Journal did this week, that:
"The iPhone maker has been better positioned than many rivals to date in part because it added employees at a much slower clip than those companies during the pandemic…
From its fiscal year-end in September 2019 to September 2022, Apple’s workforce grew by about 20% to approximately 164,000 full-time employees. Meanwhile, over roughly the same period, the employee count at Amazon doubled, Microsoft’s rose 53%, Google parent Alphabet Inc.’s increased 57% and Facebook owner Meta’s ballooned 94%.”
It would seem some companies are better able to plan than others.
This Tweet from Adam Singer, a marketer and long-time tech employee, does such a tidy job of aggregating various tech CEOs’ recent criticisms of their employees; but it also puts these criticisms into the context of the very bumpy journey these employees have been on for the past few years.
When you do this -- place comments like these into the overall arc -- the tech story goes something like this:
“Interest rates are low, and we’re growing beautifully throughout most of the 2010’s, call it. Then, boom, pandemic! Chaos ensues, companies and employees need to figure out how to work, and stay productive. But stay productive they do! Despite the massive pressures of the pandemic, employees deliver, and profits soar. Tech firms hire by the hundreds of thousands.
But fast forward to late 2022, and interest rates are rising; investor and margin pressures abound -- and the same firms that were binging on hiring are now laying off. And despite having planned poorly -- despite having written and led through this story -- CEO’s see fit to now come down on their employees. To call out the cultures of the companies -- which they create and sustain -- as inefficient, lazy and/or unproductive. To put employees on notice that the performance bar -- which they have always been responsible for defining -- is now something they're going to focus on.”
At some point the script does all begin to feel a bit…rich, does it not?
This quote is as candid as it is sobering. It also sheds light on how we ended up in the leadership mess of Stories #1 and #2: we massively under-trained and under-invested in managers and leaders during the “good times”, when growth abounded. Is it any wonder then that there is now so much leadership pain everywhere all at once?
Thanks for reading, and have a great week. 🙏🏻