Field Guide to Organizational Change
How to survive pivots, mergers & acquisitions, layoffs, and rapid changes in your market and work environment
As the past week has demonstrated yet again, only one thing in tech is constant to a degree such that it’s become a worn out cliché — change.
We live and work in dynamic environments that are subject to external and internal stressors, an increasingly complex world that inundates us with information, and an ever evolving social and cultural landscape.
It’s no wonder we’re all so tired.
Plus, it’s November, and the year seems like it’s already done, even though I know you know there is still much left to do.
The past three years have been particularly hard. When the pandemic hit in early 2020, we were all scared, a scenario out of a film playing out before our eyes and on a global scale. The immediate result for most people working in tech was that work was now from home on a full-time basis, without any previous preparation or adjustment allowed.
This was perhaps easier for tech startups and scaleups, and larger tech companies with a history of WFH (or “Home Office,” as they call it in Germany).
Other businesses had a harder time adjusting, especially those unused to video meetings, remote work, and a distributed workforce.
Boards and investors got spooked, too. Tech companies froze hiring, and many decided to reorganize and restructure, which inevitably meant layoffs.
The reason companies opt for redundancies is because in times of crisis, where private equity and VC money dries up, they have to extend their runways by reducing cash burn, protecting existing revenue, and generating new revenue through new business or upsell on existing customers.
It’s easier to keep money in the piggy bank than it is to add to it in a pinch. The operational cost of employee salaries, bonuses, and benefits is too great a chunk of the pot to ignore.
The Company Playbook
Great businesses use a time such as this as an opportunity to reassess their complete strategies top-down, bottom-up. When executed the right way, involving employees in figuring out what the next strategic move should be for the company can both help save jobs and engender a sense of trust and belonging during a difficult period.
Great businesses are transparent about their intentions upfront. This provides their employees the chance to decide whether they want to go through the motions, state their case for why they should be retained, and involve themselves in the task ahead. The reality is, of course, different. Gergely Orosz breaks it down neatly:
Transparency enables employees to leave on good terms. I’ve been through several major reorgs and layoffs in my career, and I’ve often seen that the folks who are let go first are often the folks who would leave anyway. Being transparent about your intentions creates a win-win. Mind you, I’m not advocating for transparency for the sake of a company’s interest, but it would be silly to ignore the upside that it creates.
Great businesses understand that letting go X% of staff means that there is that much fewer people to do things. It is both inappropriate and ineffectual to demand people work more to pick up the slack so the business could continue as if nothing happened. Great businesses will reduce scope, work leaner, and pause or drop all the initiatives and side quests not pertinent to present survival.
Many businesses went through these processes in 2020, some in 2021.
You’d think the shock of a pandemic would be enough for companies not to want to relive this experience again, and that they would have learned a lesson or two about the implications and consequences of doing the opposite of what great companies would do.
But lo and behold, most companies do not respond to shock like the imaginary great companies. Few are truly able to keep a clear head and work together to overcome crises.
So it came at no surprise whatsoever that many companies wound up doing the exact opposite when in 2022 the economic downturn managed to scare boards, investors, VCs, private equity firms, banks, lendors, creditors, institutional investors, Wall Street, Main Street, and just about every financial institution on the planet.
The truth is, it doesn’t matter what the cause of crisis in your company may be — the company will often react in the exact same way:
Pivoting because it failed to find product-market fit;
Or you were very successful and acquired a business, so now you’re going through a merger;
Perhaps your company was sold to another, larger one, and you’re figuring out how to integrate;
Or there’s a shake-up at the top because you’re not delivering the results your shareholders expect;
Or, you know, there’s a pandemic and a recession.
Congratulations to you if your company is experiencing more than one of the above. You’re in for a rollercoaster experience that I’m sure will make a great story some day and hopefully leave no lasting scars.
What’s a Worker To Do?
Alright, now that we’ve painted that pretty little picture, what can one do to survive this? How do you navigate change? What is the appropriate way to respond to it? And provided you do survive it, how do you make sure to get the most out of it?
Understand your company’s risk appetite
Not every company responds to crisis with downsizing. Some businesses take the opposite approach and use crisis moments as opportunities to invest, buy assets or entire companies on the cheap. They’ll expand their workforce at a time they know the market might also accept lower salaries because of a dearth of competition out there and a general hiring slowdown or outright freeze.
Other companies are much more risk-averse, and they would rather save cash-on-hand and extend their runways for as long as the economic forecasts dictate. They won’t all go into layoffs, however. Some companies will look to cut cost elsewhere.
Look for signs you’re about to go through layoffs
You can usually detect where things stand in your company if you look for telltale signs.
There’s a hiring freeze, and you started canceling tooling subscriptions. Operational overhead is the first to go. Your supervisor might ask you for a list of all the tools you use daily. There’s spreadsheets going around with monthly and yearly cost, and an assessment of how badly the team needs something. All the nice-to-have tools are the first to go. Engineering is probably looking into cloud providers, and anything with high variable cost.
Management is quiet, and the rumor mill is spreading. While this can simply be a sign of bad leadership, layoffs are also a legal nightmare, and companies are often not allowed to discuss anything until they’ve got the legal “A-okay!” to discuss plans with employees.
You’ve had layoffs before. In my experience, companies that have laid off once — and haven’t gone through a change of management or significant realignment of their strategy and processes — are more than likely to downsize again. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as, objectively, laying off a certain percentage of staff might save jobs for everyone else by extending the company’s lifeline. It’s not a question of fairness, because none of this is fair, but it does help us understand how to position ourselves as workers. Jason Knight of One Knight in Product Fame talks about layoffs from the company perspective in a recent edition of his newsletter — it’s a worthy read.
Spruce up your resume and LinkedIn profile
Don’t wait for the Fates to come get you. Take charge of your situation and freshen up your resume and LinkedIn profile, especially if that’s something you don’t do often. I do a lot of resume reviews, and I can condense the majority of the advice I give into the following:
Make your resume one page. Recruiters have to scan hundreds of these documents a week. They don’t have time to read about all the courses you took. Keep it crisp, avoid wordy prose, and make it easy to read and to scan for relevant keywords. If the world’s most senior execs can cram years and years of experience onto a single page, so can you. Remember, it’s about relevant experience and (transferable) skills, not any random experience.
Use bullet points and try to limit length to one line. Again, consider readability and how easy it is to understand what you’ve done.
Describe your impact. Sentences like “Led product development for X with a team” or “Launched feature Y that does this or that” are vague and don’t describe what you achieved as a product manager or leader. Instead, talk about the value you captured for your company:
Launched feature X which generated a 20% uplift in signup CVR, or
Led product development for X and increased retention rate by 10pp
I recommend reading Diego Granados’s advice on how to write your resume to showcase impact and skills.
If you’re applying to big cos, make sure you have an ATS-friendly Word version of your resume. Most startups won’t run applications through ATS software without human intervention, but corporates will. Make sure your resume is formatted appropriately.
If you have little previous product experience and are applying for a product role, focus on transferable skills. Make a separate list of all of your previous projects, everything you’ve done, and everything you’ve achieved. Now connect the dots between that work and the products you worked on. Look for skills that are relevant to product management, or experience that is equivalent to product development. Ask a product manager or mentor to review your list and help you break transferable skills out. And then punch up your resume focusing on those.
Accept things for what they are
And don’t forget to take care of yourself. Take time off, be with your loved ones, go for long walks in nature.
A lot of folks use these occasions to reinvent themselves. So think about whether you might want to start a side gig, or maybe even want to go into a completely new field.
You’ll get through this.
If you ever need to talk and feel stuck, feel free to reach out through my website at mirza.tech or my ADPList mentor profile
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