Let your grace shine through

Leadership Moment: Letting Go

A few weeks ago, Cloudflare let go a number of folks in its sales organization, and one of them (let’s call them AE) recorded the experience, and shared it online. It’s a long video, but to summarize: An HR representative, and a member of sales management (not AE’s manager or director, call them SM), got onto a video call with AE. SM started by saying there were performance issues; AE noted they were on their three month ramp, and had received only positive feedback from their manager. SM noted that this was a collective performance action, not an individual performance action, although HR asserted the existence of personal leading indicators.

The rest of the nine minutes of recording is an extended rant from AE in the direction of SM and HR. It’s worth watching so you know what not to do when you’re laid off (and probably don’t record and publish it).

Matthew Prince, Cloudflare’s CEO, responded:

We fired ~40 sales people out of over 1,500 in our go to market org. That’s a normal quarter. When we’re doing performance management right, we can often tell within 3 months or less of a sales hire, even during the holidays, whether they’re going to be successful or not. Sadly, we don’t hire perfectly. We try to fire perfectly. In this case, clearly we were far from perfect. The video is painful for me to watch. Managers should always be involved. HR should be involved, but it shouldn’t be outsourced to them, No employee should ever actually be surprised they weren’t performing. We don’t always get it right. And sometimes under performing employees don’t actually listen to the feedback they’ve gotten before we let them go. Importantly, just because we fire someone doesn’t mean they’re a bad employee. It doesn’t mean won’t be really, really great somewhere else. Chris Paul was a bad fit for the Suns, but he’s undoubtedly a great basketball player. And, in fact, we think the right thing to do is get people we know are unlikely to succeed off the team as quickly as possible so they can find the right place for them. We definitely weren’t anywhere close to perfect in this case. But any healthy org needs to get the people who aren’t performing off. That wasn’t the mistake here. The mistake was not being more kind and humane as we did. And that’s something @zatlyn and I are focused on improving going forward.

I personally don’t know anything more than you do about why the AE was let go. But we can read between the lines, and identify ways to act with more grace.

Scaling grace and humanity is hard, and it often starts with planning out goals for conversations like these. Tactically, the AE was right: the SM and HR folks are trying to get through as many of these as they can as fast as possible. Those incentives will often override vaguely worded directives about humanity and kindness; explicit guidance should be at-hand all through the process. 

The HR and SM reps need to be on the same page. When challenged, they headed in different directions; I can reconcile their statements with a reality of “we have metrics that your team is not producing in the way we’d hope, and we’re cutting a bunch of you,” but that’s hard to reconcile with Prince’s “sometimes under performing employees don’t actually listen to the feedback they’ve gotten.”

The script that the SM was working from seemed like a disaster from the start. It’s possible there’s a reason and need to communicate this as a performance-related termination, maybe for severance/unemployment insurance reasons – in which case, there needs to be ample documentation. But, if not, a simple, “We’ve decided to move in a different direction” or other related non-adversarial language. If, indeed, there were secret metrics and leading indicators that Cloudflare was using (amazing secret sauce if so), those shouldn’t show up as a surprise in a termination conversation.

Prince’s response contains elements of being a fantastic response. Where it falls short is in multiple times pointing out the alleged poor performance – even if true, that’s wholly unnecessary, and undercuts the very powerful mea culpa in building an organization that didn’t treat people with grace.

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One Minute Pro Tip: Collaborative Editing

A lot of editing of documents happens very serially: an author writes it, and then it passes through the hands of various teams (product marketing, legal, PR, IR, HR…), each one trying to push the message away from their specific danger zones. Unfortunately, while this may keep your communication out of well-known potholes, it often does so by pushing it entirely off the road you’d planned for it.

Instead, especially if the communication is time-sensitive, schedule time to work collaboratively. Let people read as you’re writing, and either give you verbal feedback, or propose edits just a paragraph behind you. As you see their inputs, it’ll help tweak the writing, but more importantly, you can always steer back on to the road you’d planned to be on.


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Learn more about 1% Leadership

Chapter Cameo: Keep your hand on the wheel to stay in your lane.

Chapter 43 of 1% Leadership is aimed at leadership situations exactly like Cloudflare faced: how do you have consistent, coherent, and graceful messaging in moments like this? Often, creating a script gets sourced to someone in HR, likely with a lawyer reading and editing, and the overall script and FAQ aren’t being reviewed by someone who drove the initial concept and creation.

(If you’re likely to be in AE’s shoes, you might want to check out Chapter 16 (Practice the future to face adversity with grace) as a way to plan far in advance for the termination conversation. And, by the way, that’s pretty much every single employed person.)