How to remove ‘dead wood’ in a healthy company while keeping it human
After more than thirty years of walking with business leaders managing through good and bad, I am always moved by the hardest personal challenge they ever face – terminating a person whom they like but no longer fits the needs of the business. I’ve seen all the clinical and surgical ways of doing it ‘humanely,’ but in the end, it comes down a raw use of authority. “Your time here is done.” Then comes the many euphemistic announcements about how they have gone on to pursue other options and grateful thanks for the contributions. The truth might well be liberating, but sometimes it is just painful. Pruning is never easy, especially when we are pruned. It is a good that it is hard, else our companies would lose their souls.
For over two years, I have been deliberately avoiding a plum tree in the garden, the one that bore a bountiful harvest of small purple fruit last year – some fruit is still maturing a delicious liqueur! It is a relatively young tree, gifted to us by some kind friends, but it has been slowly getting sicker with a nasty canker, a bacterial infection that gets into wounds in the tree and slowly encircles a branch, strangling off the nutrients essential for growth and fruiting. In its early stages, it all seems pretty harmless, and a vigorous tree, well-fed and irrigated, can carry the load for quite a while until the creeping necrosis steadily strangles the life, bit by bit. During the summer, when the tree is in full leaf, the scars and wounds are barely visible, and it is easy to assume that all is well. Crimson plums bow the lush branches, and as I pick each plum, my eyes rarely wander to the encroaching disease as I prefer to take delight in what the tree can still provide. It is winter that lays bare my folly.
Once the late fall has arrived, it gets hard for me to sustain my preferred illusion of a healthy tree. I still have the pleasure of the recent harvest as a lingering reminder of what has been possible, but when the leaves first turn, then fall, the ugly sores all over my favoured tree are evident. The fall rains add to the burden as the insidious bacteria spread further among the other unharmed branches of the tree. As the snow falls and winter deepens, I am comforted, somewhat, that this is surely not the time to be out in the biting cold cutting out parts of an otherwise healthy tree, so further delay is vindicated. But once the early signs of spring occur, that illusion fails, and I can no longer deny the inevitable that I must prune before I am once again preoccupied with the delights of new growth. So, I must take out my pruners and carefully commit a decisive and irreversible act. The removal of what the tree no longer needs, emboldened by the reminder of purpose – this tree is here to bear fruit!
In this COVID induced winter, much is being laid bare. First, our technologies needed to stretch to enable work from home tasks never before envisioned. Virtual trading floors emerged in banks in days, not years. Entire workforces working in lockdown or laid off mode encountered the personal challenges of a completely disrupted workflow. Restaurant food chains slammed shut. Groceries stores dealt with shortages. Aircraft, stripped of seats, fly double cargo loads of precious PPE. Every vulnerability of our companies, economies, and social systems is being revealed. Our business systems are stark naked. And there are ‘canker sores’ everywhere.
The growth of the past decades has enabled many of our businesses to shelter a multitude of elements now starkly revealed by this instant winter. There are the obvious system vulnerabilities and
supply chain dependencies, as well as more subtle corrosion like weakened morale, cumbersome process, ageing product pipelines, weakened brands, strained customer loyalty, or subpar employee engagement. These winter days expose the marginal decisions where the short-term won over the long-term, where a bonus today replaced better preparation for tomorrow, where buried risk became full-scale vulnerability, overnight, literally. In winter, strained, stretched, over-worked systems don’t just strain further, they break, and that includes our people. Hard winters reveal the consequences of delayed pruning.
The wise leader of the healthy human company knows how and when to prune. Painfully, it is true – “never waste a good crisis” – and while the opportunity for good growth is much to be preferred, this is also a time for the difficult task of pruning the business back to its healthiest wood. Four areas of focus seem prudent:
- Prune the product portfolio. Some businesses, like restaurants, have entirely lost all product. Others are seeing demand postponed and may either rebound or remain depressed. The oil patch is a veritable ‘blood bath.’ Buying behaviour is changing radically in many instances, so every healthy human company needs relevant product offerings for a radically changing future.
- Prune the business processes. Instant work-from-home and full digital engagement have revealed redundant practices and processes. “Essential” meetings are suddenly a mindless waste of time, while others became vital. Manufacturers have, for decades, known never to automate a bad process. Our instant conversion to digital engagement opens the door to a creative rethinking of the ways we do everything. Pruning makes things simpler, and simpler is always cheaper and better in the end.
- Prune the people…but do it very well. Here is the hardest and most brutal reality of this sudden winter. With plunging revenues, one of my global clients is struggling to preserve future and current livelihoods. They are creative with partial weeks, salary cuts, furloughs, sabbaticals …” anything to preserve the humanity of this place,” as my client said, painfully aware that to do otherwise was unsustainable over the long term. The wisdom to recognize long term realities and short-term pain is paramount and woefully scarce. The hard reality is that jobs lost today may preserve livelihoods for tomorrow. A failed business can employ no-one. We need the wisdom of Soloman!
- Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, be pruned! Yes, we pruners need pruning too. Rarely, is there such an opportunity for our self-importance to be pruned by the enormity of this challenge, for our over-confidence to be pruned by staggering ignorance of the future, and for our self-absorption to be pruned by the massive needs of others. The wise leaders in the healthy human company do not have a diminished view of self, but a right view—humility and courage both, and each in abundance.
Pruning is not for the faint of heart, but neither is it done well by the heartless. Good pruning demands clarity of purpose. As one CEO said to me recently, “I have to remind myself that our purpose as a company matters and we owe it to those people we serve to make the hard decisions today so we can serve them well tomorrow.” Another has been relentless: “protect our people, our customers and our company”. The healthy human company is prepared to prune what is no longer needed so that what remains is able not only to survive the winter but to burst forth in fruit in the years to come.
Here at The Telosity Company our motto is to “Do Good Work”. We are passionate about helping leaders build healthy human companies. For us, Purpose comes before Profit. We need a lot of the first. There will be enough of the second. If we can help, please ask. Find us at www.telositycompany.com.
Chris Houston writes from his farm in Moffat, Ontario, where the ordered natural world and the chaotic human world get close enough so the former can teach the latter.
Design Photo Credit: Lucia Vaughan