Many of us data leaders have come of age in a long period of growth, ever-increasing tech valuations, and relative headcount abundance. We are summer’s children, but we’re entering tumultuous times, and it’s relatively clear that winter is coming. Unfortunately, for many companies, that will mean layoffs.
In these early weeks and months of the shift, data teams, along with product and engineering, have been relatively less hard-hit by layoffs than other functions according to public layoff lists. Even if that trend is real, and continues, we won’t be immune, and whether you lose roles on the data team or not, a layoff will affect how your team needs to work moving forward.
I hope you don’t ever need this advice. But if a layoff happens, having a clear path forward can ease your anxiety and enable you to focus on helping your team and organization move forward more successfully.
Why me? Despite the rosy last decade, I have a particular love of working for venture-backed companies that are approaching profitability – which is full of fun challenges and less fun challenges. That has led me through 8 significant reductions in force (RIFs1Some vocabulary: A furlough is a mandatory but time-limited leave of absence, generally used to cut expenses temporarily without terminating employees. A layoff is termination due to lack of work. It could be temporary, as some layoffs were during the pandemic, but it can also be permanent. A RIF is a permanent reduction in headcount via the elimination of roles. I use layoff and RIF somewhat interchangeably here, but now you know the real difference.) across 4 companies in the past 15 years. I’ve gone through RIFs as an individual contributor, a team lead, and as an executive. In those, I’ve been everywhere on the spectrum between being completely surprised and making the decisions on what roles to eliminate. I’ve been through truly awful layoffs, and I’ve also laid people off smoothly enough that they took a role back at the company later2For more on how to actually conduct layoffs, particularly as a senior leader, I recommend a16z’s guide as a pretty human one. LifeLabs’ massive People Leader Resilience Playbook also has some helpful reading..
Through that experience, I’ve learned that there are three key areas a data leader needs to focus on directly after a layoff:
- prioritization, and
- visibility of performance.
A layoff will never be enjoyable or easy, but the right focus will help your team and the broader organization get back on the right track sooner.
While I think people always come first, this is doubly (triply? infinitely?) true when you go through a layoff. After a layoff, the people around you are going to be anxious and distracted. Your number one goal is to rebuild trust in your leadership, the team and the organization. You should expect to spend a lot more time in 1:1s for a while, both with your team and other folks within the organization.
Give other people space to be human. There are a lot of feelings about a layoff – fear, guilt, anger, grief. Name what’s around you – be open with your team that this is difficult, rather than pretending it’s business as usual. You may find it helpful to facilitate a conversation where folks who have been through a similar organizational experience share what it’s like with the rest of the team.
Give space for folks to feel what they’re feeling, to share with you what they want to share with you, and for it to take different amounts of time for each person to work through. You might want to experiment with some new lightweight check in questions or different ways for folks to share how they’re feeling without asking them to share too much. Some folks are bringing experiences from prior layoffs along with them. Many have never been through this before. Some don’t want to talk about it at all, they just want to get back to work. Your first role is to make space for all of these reactions and enable folks to process what’s happening.
Give yourself space to be human. Everything I said above? You’ll be going through that too. Do what you can to make the emotional weight of supporting your team bearable. Leverage your network outside your team and outside your company to help you dissect those emotions. Take care of yourself.
Help people understand what this means for them. Layoffs will change many peoples’ roles. The first reaction for many will be to start looking for another job because they’re afraid that what happened once will happen again. But in many cases, a RIF opens up growth and leadership opportunities, new types of roles, and a level of organizational focus that can help your team be even more successful. Help them understand the opportunities ahead of them and how to align what they want with what the company needs.
Be as honest as you can about what you know and what you don’t. The changes likely hit some teams harder than others because of shifts in strategy. Help your team understand how the business strategy relates to the people strategy, without explaining why the layoff affected specific individuals. It’s a lot less scary and feels a bit less unfair when you understand why leadership made certain decisions. But when you don’t know, admit you don’t know.
One helpful way to frame this is “know, don’t know, will know” statements. Framing statements in the form “Here is what we know, here is what we don’t know, and here is when we will provide an update” helps set clear expectations on follow-up, even if you aren’t sure you’ll know the answer by the next update (it’s ok for the next update to also be a “know, don’t know, will know” statement).
Strengthen relationships with your key stakeholders. Whether your stakeholder relationships need shoring up because of strategic shifts, roles that were lost, or just a need for more human connection, make time to check in with colleagues outside your team.
Help those who were laid off however you can. Leverage your network, give great references, and offer continued support however you can. Give them space to process, but don’t make them shoulder all the labor of asking you for help – check back in periodically to see how you can help them through the transition.
If you think you’re going to be able to do more with less after a layoff, you’ll fail yourself and your team. Layoffs visibly reduce the company’s capacity to deliver on work, but they are also an incredible distraction. Even if your team didn’t lose any headcount, emotionally processing the layoff will put a tax on your team’s productivity for at least a few months as folks readjust to the new normal. Prioritization becomes absolutely critical.
First, ensure your team understands the go-forward strategy, and how it affects their work. Spend an outsized amount of time aligning the team around what is most important to the company, and be explicit about what is less important. Tie all of the data team’s work back to this strategy when you communicate both within the team and with the rest of the organization.
Acknowledge the limits of the known strategy. This can be a hard conversation, to admit that you aren’t sure the strategy will pan out. But the data team has the perfect skills to help here – lean into your role in helping the company quickly learn and iterate as you test into more certainty around the strategy. The sooner you understand what’s working and what isn’t, the more effective the organization will be.
Take projects off the roadmap. There may be some that are easy, based on company-wide priority shifts. There may only be hard choices. But your job, as a leader, is to make hard choices and sell them to your stakeholders. Taking a roadmap made for 5 team members and saying it will just take longer to get through everything with 4 will not work here. You have to say no.
Reprioritize. This may be re-ranking a project list. This may mean bigger shifts, like realigning team members with different functional teams to make sure you’ve got resourcing aligned with the highest priority needs. Do this quickly and clearly, communicate whys with your team, but emphasize the need for flexibility with your team. Things will continue to shift, and it’s a balance of being as clear as possible while not over-committing to a roadmap.
Reset expectations with your stakeholders. Bring other teams along on your decision-making and be clear about what is and isn’t a priority going forward. Good thing you invested in strengthening those relationships, because you might need some grace and extra trust from them now. Throughout your conversations, seek to build alignment on what work has the highest impact and how to measure it.
Help your team focus on the next right thing. Change is hard and distracting, and makes it easy to wallow in not knowing what’s next. You have to help your team members combat that. For some teams, you can just focus on explicitly prioritizing projects rather than relying on each team member to prioritize inbound work. For others, you might need to lean more deeply into project management, and actually help break those projects down into smaller deliverables. A bite-sized, two hour chunk of work that is clearly scoped makes forward progress easier than if everyone expects you to just draw the owl while you ruminate about big changes.
Visibility of Performance
More than ever after a layoff, folks across the company want to know where they stand. Many of the suggestions above apply to all people leaders after a layoff; this is where your data team can bring their particular expertise to help the entire company realign. Your team should lean into supporting reporting and analysis that can feel routine in other times – it helps create a needed culture of transparency and rebuild trust. This is closely connected to your prioritization; ensure your team understands why this work is an increasingly important part of their role.
Double down on supporting visibility into KPI performance versus targets. Make sure targets are up to date and that employees know where to find reporting. This is a good opportunity for a lunch & learn or Loom to explain how to read your highest level KPI reporting independently.
Ensure key reporting aligns with the major strategic assumptions going forward. If the marketing budget decreased by 50% but you expect new signups to only decline by 20%, ensure that reporting shows progress. Make it easy to see and interpret whether the shifts you expect are happening, or whether you need to help understand what’s different than expected.
Contextualize and discuss results. If your organization doesn’t yet have a monthly business review, maybe it’s time to start a lightweight one. Or, maybe you just need to drop a paragraph-long update in Slack every few weeks with a link to a KPI dashboard. But expect to devote more time to checking in on performance and being a voice to help others in the org understand how metrics are trending, and what it means.
Be an advocate for further transparency. Your team may not be able to provide regular reporting on all of the metrics your colleagues will be increasingly focused on – namely, financial metrics like cash burn or runway. The unspoken agreement between employee and employer is that the company will continue to employ the team as long as financial performance supports doing so. The company just said the quiet part out loud. Encourage the org to be more transparent generally, and help however you can to communicate financial performance drivers.
Layoffs are Hard
Layoffs are hard for the people terminated, they’re hard for the teams who stay, and they’re hard for leaders. Be patient with yourself and your colleagues as you process the changes. Do what you can to help yourself, your team and the rest of the company focus on what is truly important to succeed in the new environment. And then? You have to get back to work and rebuild the new normal.
If you ask me, folks don’t talk about layoffs enough. Have you been through a layoff, whether recent or not? Does this need for focus resonate with you? Come chat in Locally Optimistic’s Slack community – I’m open to DMs if you have a layoff question that doesn’t feel right in a public channel.