Tech Leader Chats: How to support yourself and your team through a layoff with Kendra Curtis

Title of talk with photo of speaker

With layoffs happening across the tech industry, no one is left unscathed. Being laid off comes with immense challenges and deserves the deepest sympathies. Being chosen to stay can also be difficult; this talk is aimed at the leaders who remain in a company after a layoff.

If you’re one of the people still in the organization, you likely have your own feelings about what happened. You also have a team of people who have their own feelings and opinions. On top of that, you still need to deliver work with this new and smaller team. It can be hard to know where to start.

To share advice and learnings, we’re fortunate to be hearing from Kendra Curtis (previously at Google and Cockroach Labs). Kendra has led engineering teams through both the 2000 and 2008 recessions and has written a great article on leading through a layoff. This talk will dive into topics including how to:

  • Give yourself and your team space to grieve
  • Rebuild morale in the new team structure
  • Prioritize where to focus with a smaller group of people
  • Plan for and communicate what’s ahead for the team

About the speaker
Kendra Curtis is an engineering leader with 20+ years of experience in all levels of the software stack, from early days writing firmware for wireless networking products to managing teams of developers building web applications. She spent close to a decade at Google. Then she was CEO and a co-founder of Scout It Out. Most recently, she was the Director of Engineering at Cockroach Labs, where she launched CockroachCloud. Kendra has been through the 2000's Tech Bubble and Economic Downturn in 2008.

How to support yourself and your team through a layoff

See below for:

  • Key takeaways from the talk
  • The recording and slides
  • Resources noted in the talk
  • A transcript of the talk
Key takeaways
Be honest, kind, firm. Say what you know, don't know, and expect

Helping former team members will help both of you heal

Identify, prioritize, then plan/communicate with remaining team

Recording and slides

You can view the slides from the talk here - and see below for the full recording



Transcribed by software, please forgive minor errors.

Kendra Curtis  0:00  
Part of what? All right, recording. Okay? Um, so I've had over 20 years in tech, and right now I'm doing some coaching. So what inspired me to write this article is, you know, I've been through a company where we downsized the entire company by 50%. I wasn't laid off in that round. But then we did another 50%. And I was laid off in the second round. I started in Bubble, I've had a lot of experience with that. But I've been doing some coaching with people who haven't they, you know, the golden years of the tech world have lasted for so long that there are a lot of people that could be a decade, almost a decade plus into their career, and they haven't actually experienced, you know, layoffs, and all of the emotional stuff that comes with that, and how to manage that. So the article that Vivec mentioned, is focused on for people who are not laid off, but still at the company. How do you recover? What does leadership and management of the company need to do so that these companies survive, and hopefully, can, you know, bring people back or be the company that even if the person who was laid off doesn't want to come back is rooting for and wanting to succeed? So I'm going to spend the bulk of my presentation talking about that. But also, based on questions that have come up before the talk, I'm going to I'm going to spend a bit of time talking about, you know, what happens to those people who are let go and kind of like some of the considerations that should come into that. So we'll go to the next slide.

Vivek Katial  1:44  
Okay, I think I might be showing the wrong version of the slides. Sorry. Okay. Sorry, James.

Kendra Curtis  1:53  
That's okay. Yeah, those aren't my slides. Okay,

Vivek Katial  1:57  
there we go. There we go.

Kendra Curtis  2:02  
There we go. Okay. So to start out with, I just want to take a few minutes to talk about, like community community is essential, not only for the people who are let go, but for the people who are still at the company, the closest thing that I can relate a layoff to is a death. Because it's kind of like the death of a relationship and the, you know, people have left the company so they've gone through a trauma plus the people who have lost that person are going through a trauma. So the sorry, are we still good with the slides?

Vivek Katial  2:45  
Yeah. Okay, screw it up. Sorry.

Kendra Curtis  2:48  
No worries, just wanted to make sure we, I hadn't lost anything. So community includes your family, your friends, your mentors, your colleagues, everyone in that is someone that you can draw upon during a layoff. In the US, there have been studies that say like 55% of us professionals derive their identity from their jobs. So when a layoff happens, it's a major traumatic life event. And there are also studies that say the bounce back has to do with how we process it. It's not that we, you know, put together an action plan and you know, we go through all the steps, it's taking a look at how we're feeling, learning from the past, then going on to next steps and using that community that you have. Now to say that how do we set up people so that they have a have a community? My number one rule is layoffs should be done in person, or, you know, like this face to face, if you're if you're a remote worker, you should not be receiving an email. I think that is absolutely inhumane that Rob somebody of their community, because, one, they should be able to fully understand what's going on and have a conversation with someone. You also want to be able to let them know who else is is gone. Right? Because the first time I was laid off, what we did was, you know, the the company, let us go there was there's 10 of us in the group. There were many other people in the company got let go because we let 50% on the goal. But we had a 10 person group five of us, were let go. We all got to go back to our desks. Then we went out, my manager said let's go let's go grab something to eat, grab a drink, you know, kibitz that kind of a thing. And then they also set up a lunch for a month later to see how everybody was doing. You know, have you found a job? Is there any kind of assistance that we can do for you? And that was invaluable that it was the first time I'd ever been laid off. Other people in my group were like, Do you know what you're doing next, like the next step for you should be in Canada, we have great unemployment insurance, you should apply for unemployment insurance, I'm like, I have no idea how to do that. They're like, don't worry about it, you come with us, they actually took me to the unemployment insurance office, we all filled our applications together. And you know, it was a much less stressful situation, because I had a group of people to do it with. Another thing that helps with layoffs, and a sense of community is they don't always have to be immediate. Sometimes companies for some reasons, you know, they want to just, you know, kind of surprise you with it for whatever reason, but I think, don't plan for the bad actor, the bad actor is someone who if they were going to do something to you, they already have the power to do that. And giving someone a heads up, even if it's just a month so that people can, you know, know, whether it's them or not to start planning that the company is having some issues. And also, the timing, when do you lay someone off are the first round of layoffs that the company I'm talking about had, they had originally planned it for September 11, the actual September 11, when the planes crashed into the building, they wisely decided not to have a company wide 50% layoff that day, they delayed it by a week, thank goodness, because I can't imagine the psychological impact of actually seeing the world, major world events happening at the same time, as you lost your job like that would just have been too much. And the amount that it cost them to keep us all for an extra week and let the dust settle from that so that we were all in a better psychological space was much, much better. I also recommend, do it on a Friday, whenever you want to give someone bad news, Friday is the time to do it. Because the next day, they're going to hopefully be surrounded by family and friends, right? It's not like the next day, everyone goes to work, and they're sitting at home alone. So next slide. So that's just kind of a little bit about how to build a bit of sense of community, especially for the people that are being let go. Now I want to switch to the people who stay behind. These people are going through a traumatic event as well. Their psychological safety has taken a big hit, they're going to be wondering things like how was the selection made? When's the next round coming? You know, how much financial runway do we have left? That kind of thing. And if they didn't see it coming, they're like, How did I not see this coming? Can I trust, you know, the people that I work for? So my advice to the leaders of the company is be honest, be kind and be firm? One of the questions that came in is how do you avoid the crying selfie of the CEO. No one wants to see the crying selfie, it's not, it's not about the CEO, as a leader, they want to see someone who is going to be able to write the ship, and lead it through this next phase. And the way that you can do that is to tell them, You know what, you know, what you don't know, and what is expected to come next. And just be be firm. And you know, that that crumbling that you're feeling inside, as you know, I let you all down. Keep that for private. It's about the people that were let go trying to help them out and trying to help the people that are still at the company. So a lot of the people that are still there are going to be experiencing survivor's guilt. And I've found in companies where we've let people off like the first week, you could almost hear a pin drop in the office, it was so quiet because everyone was just kind of shell shocked by what happened. So it's key to acknowledge your feelings, and that it's okay that this is going to happen. It's going to slow down. There's going to be some time where people need to regroup and absorb the new state of reality. Another thing to do about survivor's guilt is stay in touch with those people who are gone. You know, that moment of compassion that you give them when you reach out to them is going to make them feel less alone. But there's also you know, psychology tells us it makes you feel better as well to be able to connect with them. offer to help them take a look at their resume their LinkedIn. Network with them, provide them with a reference, a lot of people who are like go are going to think I guess I'm in the bottom 6% of the company, and I'm just not a poor performer. And by you offering to give them a reference, it tells them that they're not. Because a lot of the times, these aren't like the bottom percent of the company, there's a lot of factors that go into play, like job function, budgets, sometimes it just comes down to straight math, this person makes this amount of money. And if I let them go, I can keep these other two people. And it has nothing to do with their performance. So in you offering to give them a reference, it also tells them, hey, I think you're a worthwhile individual, and you contributed to this team. Next slide. So now that we've talked about, I'm just lightly touched on the psychological well being of things, I want to talk to you a little bit about how a company grows, and how you how you can apply that to downsizing. So for me, there's there's a general guiding principles in management, generally, you want to make sure that your team is not in a reactive mode, and that they're not multitasking. There's studies that show that multitasking, if people think they can do it, it actually reduces their productivity by as much as 40%. So what I do is, I spend time identifying, you know, what is my team working on? What are they doing with their side project, kind of? What's the landscape? Second basic step is to prioritise like, what should we be doing and when and how much time should we be spending on it. And then once you develop that, plan, and communicate that plan, and that that plan is going to be your, your short, your medium and your long term plans, and no matter

who was laid off at your company. So say, you know, your group wasn't touched by the layoffs. likely someone that you work with, or another group that that you work with was, so I don't know how many of you are familiar with the tockman group development model. But there's, there's four stages, sometimes five, there's a fifth one that's been added. But basically, a team goes through forming, storming, performing, and norming. And what you want to try and do is get your team to the norming stage, because that's where everyone, the everyone knows the roles, things automatically are flowing, but lay off, put your team all the way back to the forming stage. And what you need to do is demonstrate strong coordinating behaviours. So the next slide, I'm going to apply that to how, hopefully most of you have had the experience of a team that is, is growing or a company that is growing. And I'm gonna take an example from when I worked at cockroach labs, a cockroach labs, I built a web front end team for their managed version, or a managed version of cockroach dB. So when I before I got there, you could just take cockroach to be the binary, you could download it, you could instal it wherever you wanted, and you could run it. My team's vision was we want you to go to a website, you give us your credit card, 15 minutes later, like magic, the database is up and running in whichever cloud provider you would like it in. Great. So my front end team built that. But now it was the first time that team had insight into how people were using the database. Like we had full insight, the downloadable version had things that would call home. If you opted into it, not everyone opted into that. And it was only a select few. Now, the front end team had a view into everything. So people would ad hoc stop by their desks and say, Hey, how many people are doing X? Can you take a look for me? You know, they're looking for business insights on you know, how do we shape this product going forward? totally valid. I had no idea people were coming. But as a manager, I started hearing rumblings about data requests. Like, I wonder what's going on because I was hearing grumbling from salespeople. And then I went to my team and I said, are we getting requests for data? They're like, yeah, yeah, we are. And it's getting more and more. So that was step one, identify. So I had the team, take a week or two weeks and report how much of their time are they spending with data requests people come and stuff by their desk? I found out that 50% of my team at that point, so I was a little slow on the uptake was spent doing data requests, some of which were duplicates, because it was just an ad hoc process where someone would just come to a random engineers desk Come and say, Hey, can

you tell me you know how many people are doing X? So I've done step one, I've identified, hey, we have

a need for people to do data requests. So step two, I had to figure out like it was this information important? Yes, it was important to maintain this flow of information. And we were using this for product insights, sales pitches, we were shaping you know, where this product was going in the future. So in the short term, what we decided to do is we recreated a ticketing system, we said, we're happy to get your data requests, we don't have somebody who does it. But we're going to do them in tickets. That way we can assign a person to do them. So there's actually someone who's taking care of these things. And we're going to reduce the chance of any duplicates. Medium term, we put in a formal rotation of people who took care of this kind of thing, did some slight automation. And at long term, I said, you know, what we really need to do is we need to spin up a data science team. So I presented those to my boss, who said, Yeah, we started opening our request and started forming a team that was actually going to take care of this community, we had a company meeting, I said, Hey, here's our new process, here's where you create a ticket, all of that kind of thing. So that's kind of how you grow. And then by the time I left there, we actually had a data science team, who was responsible for collecting data, putting it in a database, actually creating reports before they were requested. So that's kind of the step of how you get from, you know, an ad hoc process to a team. So on the next slide is how do you take this process and apply it to downsizing. So for the sake of this example, this did not actually happen. But let's say that data science team that you have performed, the entire team was laid off, we've said that, you know, we, we don't have the money to support this. And the way that we're doing layoffs is we're taking away an entire department. So the first step in this is to acknowledge, you used to have a group of people who did this, and this was their full time job. And you're not going to get as much done with less people. Sure, that team left behind artefacts they left behind systems and automation and that kind of thing. So it's probably not going to go all the way back to that complete ad hoc process where you had didn't have any tools to do it. But it's definitely not going to be the same as it was when you had a dedicated team to do it. So once you've had, you know, a time to acknowledge the new state of affairs, or hopefully, if you're part of the management team, you're going to have discussions about this before you let the data science team go. But in the aftermath, or prior to, you have to figure out what you're going to do once the function is gone. And the first thing you should ask yourself is, is this needed for the sake of this example? It is needed. So we've identified the team has gone, asking ourselves if this is needed, this is part of the prioritisation process. Because even though the data science team is gone, we still want to keep this product. And we still want to shape what we do with it in the future. And what we want to avoid is during the layoff process, going all the way back to that ad hoc process where we had people doing duplicate work, there was no tracking. And then people were frustrated on both sides. The engineers are frustrated because people have these random requests. And you know, sales marketing product, people are frustrated because they're not getting the request field in a timely manner. So we've decided that yes, this is important that the function must remain, but how should we do it? So that's when it's time for leadership to demonstrate those those strong coordinating behaviours that I mentioned from Tuchman's model? It at this point, you should have clear communication. That, yes, we're going to keep this function. No, it's not going to be the same as it was before, you'll probably won't have you know, those reports that were just automatically generated for you, those will probably go away. And you have to establish who is responsible for this going forward. Now, in my hypothetical example, I think we will probably go back to a ticketing system and some sort of a rotation of engineers who is responsible for fulfilling those requests. So kind of going just one step above that. adhoc depending on what systems are in place, but don't fool yourself and thinking that you can maintain the complete systems that a whole data scientists, Team maintain, that's just not going to happen on this, you know, bring back a data science team, there was a reason that they weren't there. So that's downsizing. And that's kind of how you would then you know, you'd make an agreement with your other managers, I would say, you know, if my team is still there, and we still have a web front end team, it would probably come back to us and say, Hey, you're the ones who have the most visibility, come up with a process to do that.

So that's how you identify that three step process to downsizing, identify what's gone or who's gone and what job functions they are, prioritise whether it's still needed, and then communicate how it's going to be done, going forward. And with that, the next slides I charge through a lot of material. I'm happy to I focus mainly on, you know, the logistics of how you upsize and then downsize but I'm happy to take questions on kind of any area of layoffs. And that kind of thing, because I know I ploughed through a lot of material. Hopefully I didn't go too quickly. It's hard to tell when you're doing it by a VC.

Vivek Katial  21:37  
Thank you so much Kendra and it just was such a good systemized, like approach to everything but still saw him and yeah, one of my favourite takeaways is just making sure you really value those people and reminding the people who are laid off, it's often not their fault or their performance. It's actually like their business decisions or something else that might have made their issues and giving them a reference or not making it a surprise. I think you're being kind. It's something that's really important. Well, James, I'm going to hand it over to you to run the q&a. Now. So yeah, James will run the q&a and we'll stop the recording. So people can ask questions. Closed.

Kendra Curtis  22:27  
Yeah, and one other thing I just realised I forgot also, I gave you some tips on survivor's guilt, but also as a company point people towards professional resources. Not everyone can make it through on their own. That can't be understated. If you have that available. Make sure you you point that out to employees

Transcribed by

James Dong
James Dong
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