The shifting tectonic plates – part two

In my previous post, I shared about the first of two significant changes that rearranged the contours of my life two days after my fourth-cycle birthday. This post focuses on the second, work-related change. As this is work-related, I will endeavor to write about it in a way that is appropriate and does not ruffle any communications policy feathers.

italy-quake

The morning that I dropped Tawn off at his parents’ house, for them to look after as he recovered from his severe allergic reaction to some medication, I headed into work and shortly afterwards a corporate announcement appeared in my inbox:

Ms. CCO (the Chief Commercial Officer, who was also the head of the business unit I support in my role as Director, HR Business Partnering) has left the company over differences in the strategic direction of the business with the CEO.  In the interim, the Mr. CEO will head the business unit as we search for a replacement.

Note that this information was publicly released at the same time, so I am not sharing any proprietary information with this announcement.

The back story is that the CCO had specifically asked me to step from a leadership development role into this HR business partner role six months ago, to help her turn around what has been a financially struggling business unit. This was a leap of faith for me and a challenge that I decided was worth undertaking.

Along the way, I struggled to understand my new role and see how I could best bring value to the CCO and to the organization. In fact, just the week before, I had dinner in Hong Kong with my former boss and another colleague and, discussing this challenge, arrived at the conclusion that I needed to be more up-front in confronting the CCO and bringing my independent voice to her counsel.

No sooner had I returned from Hong Kong, then the following week, the CCO left!

This was a shock to me and as the head of HR for the business unit, I was unsurprisingly the recipient of a flurry of questions. Concerned employees, especially regional ones, wanted to know what was happening, whether their jobs were safe and – oh, by the way – did you know that I would be just great at such-and-such a role in operations?

It was a challenge because nowhere in our HR standard operating procedures describes how to handle the unexpected resignation of your head of business unit. So I charged forward, comforting people, reminding them that we need to focus on what we can control: our reaction, our mindset and what needs to be done.

The weeks that have followed have been interesting – there is no better way to learn than to face crisis and uncertainty – and also frustrating, because you want to help people but you have no real information to share, nothing substantial you can provide. The only thing you have is an empathetic ear, which is maybe the most valuable thing in times like these.

A few weeks later, a second major announcement came: my boss was promoted to be the global head of HR, a role that the CEO (and, previously, the CCO) had held. This would appear to be a good thing – after all, one thing I have appreciated about working at this company is that despite it being a large multinational, I have been able to work directly with our most senior leaders.

Two days after the second announcement, a third announcement came: a restructuring in HR, in which my former boss (the one I had dinner with in Hong Kong) and three of her team members were cut. This was personally devastating for me, as these are people who are colleagues and also friends. Only six months ago, I was part of that team and the most compelling reason I chose to join this company was because of the connection I made with my former boss when she interviewed me. This was someone whose vision I believed in and whose balance of high standards and high nurturance created the robust environment in which I could thrive.

A fact of life in businesses is that restructurings happen. People, through no fault of their own, are cut from a company. Their work, which is often a large part of their personal identity, is taken away. And in my new role as an HR business partner, the last few weeks have given me a lot to think about, in terms of how that process is done. How best can we conduct an inherently inhumane event in a humane way that esteems and treats with dignity the people who are being let go?

As a manager several years ago, I had to deliver this difficult news to scores of people as my company went through two rounds of layoffs. And I have been on the receiving end of a layoff when my previous employer wanted me to stop working remotely from Thailand and return to the United States. Based on those experiences, I have some idea how layoffs can be done with dignity.

Just as the tectonic shift in my relationship with my father-in-law has changed the landscape surrounding my marriage, this tectonic shift in my organization has changed the landscape surrounding my job.

My reflection is that there are two ways to go: I could give in to cynicism and start to look for a way out of the turbulence, seeking something more certain and stable. Many friends have encouraged me to take this route. Alternately, I could follow the advice given by a few other friends: choose to stick with the challenging route through the rearranged landscape, because it is in these challenging times that the opportunity to make a difference is greatest.

As with all earthquakes, there is a risk of aftershocks. We do not know when they will come, nor what their severity will be. But in the meanwhile, I think the best route forward is through the rubble. There are people in need of direction and support and there is rebuilding to be done.