Nearly two weeks ago, venture capital (VC) company, Sequoia Capital sent a note, “Coronavirus: The Black Swan of 2020” to all founders of companies currently in their portfolio to offer insight into how they should handle the new business environment in the midst of a global pandemic.
Much of the advice was fairly standard “hunker down” advice – plan, prepare, and perform. Move quickly and be decisive. Be “bold,” they say in the memo. Anyone who took an intro business course in college knows the drill.
There are the predictable anti-capitalism responses in comments on the original post and across social media, but simultaneously a realistically dark and recklessly invisible reaction spreading in the tech world.
In their actionable advice, one point was the shortest, but loudest statement: “5. Headcount. Given all of the above stress points on your finances, this might be a time to evaluate critically whether you can do more with less and raise productivity.”
We are now being told that boards are meeting behind closed doors and referencing the “Black Swan” memo, and they’re seeking to act “clinically realistic,” as Sequoia instructed. Even if they’re not in Sequoia’s portfolio, the weight of the VC firm’s influence has rippled across the nation and pushed companies to put real thought into mass layoffs. In the middle of a global pandemic.
Why is that the takeaway from the memo when so many other points were made? Because we’re all panicking, and it feels like one of the only immediately actionable moves. Hunker down, trim the fat, keep as much cash on hand, be brutal, keep the company afloat. It makes sense, but it’s wildly tone-deaf and instead of leading on the topic (offering insights into how NOT to lose the loyalty and “culture” brands have so heavily invested in), it is cold. Clinical.
“5. Headcount” is echoing in boardrooms across America.
Bret Starr, Founder & CEO of B2B marketing agency, The Starr Conspiracy wrote a scathing point-by-point takedown of the Black Swan memo, also taking issue with pressuring their portfolio to review their headcount. “There it is. This is Sequoia at its core. Why wait to fire people? Go ahead and fire them now! And while you’re at it, see if you can squeeze the people left behind to be more “productive.” (Remember that part at the beginning of the memo when they talked about how much they care about people? Come on. Sequoia doesn’t care about people. They care about money.)”
Just yesterday, we wrote an open letter to employers struggling with sending their teams home or not, noting, “now is not the time to shut down your hiring pipelines, in fact, right now is the exact time you need to fire up your efforts, because remote work is going to reveal a lot about your team, and some folks are going to shine more than you ever knew they could. But in this sink or swim scenario, some are going to sink and you need to have a deep roster to pull from. If you don’t keep that pipeline full, your sinkers could drag your whole company down.”
Starr concluded, “Sequoia had an opportunity (like the rest of us) to reassure their portfolio companies and demonstrate their care for our people, our communities, and our country. Instead, they whipped up fear and uncertainty, gave bad marketing advice, recommended firing some people and making others work harder, told folks to hoard cash, said some stupid shit about Darwin, mansplained a bunch of stuff using jargon, and trotted out Alfred Lin so he could once again compare shit to Zappos. None of us are selling shoes, dude! And we wonder why people are pissed at Silicon Valley.”
This would be the time to confess that I personally believe capitalism is beautiful. Truly. But even “bold” leaders and “clinical” thinkers who also believe in capitalism have an opportunity to do the right thing here without losing their companies.
And maybe that’s the Austin tech geek inside of me raging at the idea of taking an axe to something that requires a scalpel and a steady hand. A native of the nation’s most philanthropic city, I’m surrounded by people that give as much time, talent, and treasure (money) as possible. We’re used to coming together and helping each other out.
And one defining characteristic of Austin tech companies is thinking creatively – something others look to us for. And a top reason firms like Sequoia flop their thick wallets around our town.
So here’s what I hope Austin tech companies will do instead of use an axe to blindly chop down headcount – pick up a scalpel, take a deep breath, and make small cuts.
As teams work remotely, some are going to sink while others swim, so do a productivity audit, do a leadership audit.
Look at how people are working right this very minute – are there managers going above and beyond to make sure the transition to remote is seamless? Keep ’em. Are there support staff spotting challenges and offering ideas on fixing them? Keep ’em. Is there anyone on the team looking at budgets without being asked and sending in suggestions for how to mitigate the pandemic onslaught? Keep ’em. Are there sales staff that are dragging their feet and offering excuses while others are digging in and thinking outside of the box? You know what to do.
Leaders that can’t take the time to pick up the scalpel are going to have a hard time recruiting QUALITY talent after this pandemic is under control.
Can companies afford to take that kind of hit? Can Sequoia companies take that hit? Did Sequoia just put their portfolio companies in a negative spotlight by association with their Black Swan memo?
When layoffs begin (and of course they will, it’s inevitable), how awful will the headlines about each company be? Will it be clear whether a compassionate scalpel was used, or if the Board pressured a CEO into indiscriminately flailing an axe around the corporate offices for two minutes then staring at the fallout?
Sequoia’s advice isn’t just in conflict with Austin tech culture, it is the worst kind of useless “business advice” that people are going to listen to, be they a 5-person graphic design shop in Dallas, or a 1,500-person SaaS company in San Francisco.
Because Sequoia is the source, the generic advice will be followed blindly.
It speaks volumes about Sequoia that the memo wasn’t their fund offering to chip in a bit to help mitigate the impact of layoffs and offer staff severance packages to make sure those impacted don’t literally starve during this pandemic. There was no mention of mental health. There were no whispers of mentoring their portfolio companies through this storm to make sure their long term brand name survives this potential PR hit. Nothing about doing the right thing or being American, or anything about a rising tide lifting all boats.
Instead, it was a list of platitudes that could have been written by a high schooler assigned a paper on “how to do business during a crisis.”
Of course it is prudent to prepare for the worst right now, because it’s looking like a serious possibility, but thinking more creatively (doing a productivity and leadership audit (scalpel) versus aimlessly cutting higher paid or underutilized staff (axe)) is the only way to protect the company’s reputation long-term.
Trust me, people won’t forget how EVERY company acted during the COVID-19 crisis. In this current environment, the world is news obsessed, they’re taking stock, and can you blame them?
News organizations like ours won’t be deleting stories about companies using the axe when they could have used the scalpel. Or not made cuts at all.
America is watching business leaders right now more than ever, and companies’ futures rely on the decisions they make right this minute.
Interviews shouldn’t include ‘how did you improve yourself?’ during or after COVID
(EDITORIAL) Emotional Intelligence will be even more needed in recruiting talent and Interviews shouldn’t look the same as they did pre-COVID.
Question: Remember that last time you dealt with a global pandemic?
Answer: No, because most likely, none of us have.
This is new for many of us. We’ve likely each felt the rollercoaster of emotions or even grief as our ways of lives changed, some were quickly moved to working remotely while others were deemed essential workers and were not able to work from home. It was disheartening for many that no matter what position they were put in, it was with no choice. And then there were the millions of jobs eliminated as well, affecting people’s ability to pay their bills and fulfill their own safety, and even basic needs. Everyone entered survival mode, and it looks the same yet different depending on your unique situation.
All of this comes at a price that seems hard to predict. Moving forward will be different albeit many of us don’t know exactly how yet, and are imagining a wild range of possibilities. Now that the US unemployment is up to 14.7%, there will also be many people job searching and finding themselves in interviews answering the typical “Tell me about yourself”, or “Tell me about a time when…” Most likely many candidates will be able to tell you about their previous work experiences, but here’s what we ask of future employers:
- Be more understanding (less judgmental or pushy) if you see folks looking to switch careers, or you see Small Business Owners applying for your open position. This may have been an opportunity for them to explore another avenue, or it may have been forced if their previous type of position (or business) is no longer available. Of course, you can ask them why they are interested in the position, but try not to look down your brow if they seem to be an unlikely or unexpected candidate.
- Do not ask what this candidate did to be productive during the quarantine. Just surviving may have been enough. If they did take up a new hobby, learn a new coding language, write a book, or start a new work out program, I’m going to guess it will come out in conversation. If they literally had to utilize the majority of their energy for coping skills, that should be enough. Don’t believe all the sourdough starters you saw on Instagram (and why has banana bread been so popular?)
- Try to avoid some of the ridiculous questions that tell you nothing about their skill set. We get it, interviews can be boring so you thought it might be fun to ask the interviewee for their favorite joke such as “What 5 items would they want on a deserted island?” or “What fruit they would be in a smoothie?” This has been an extremely traumatic situation for many. The goofy questions are not really applicable, and will only lead to additional stress after they leave thinking over if they “got the answer right”.
- Please do your best to really utilize this time to hire with diversity and inclusion in mind. Do not dismiss someone because they have several years of experience in another sector or because they didn’t attend the Ivy League school. If they applied, chances are they do have an interest in your company, so exploring how they can be a great fit, bring in a refreshing perspective, and may be a better option than hiring something that exactly matches the job description (which may be hard to find anyway) is a smart idea. Please be open to a variety of ages, races, and sexes.
Interviews in general can conjure up lots of negative feelings, anxiety, and stress. Most people don’t like the stress of interviews but yet they have accepted that this is part of the job search process. There will be even more people out there looking again, and likely not because they want to. The mental toll this is taking should be handled with care. As this Ask a Manager article beautifully states:
“If someone is teaching themselves a new language or building their coding skills during the pandemic, that’s great. But to present it as an expectation during a time when millions of people are struggling to keep their homes, feed their families, and stay alive — to imply people might be less worthy of employment if they needed to focus on their finances and their safety during a f’ing global crisis — no. No. Something has gone very wrong in anyone who believes that.”
The companies with openings may have an advantage with many available and interested candidates but they also have a huge responsibility to not take this lightly; don’t waste people’s time, and don’t ask really INSENSITIVE questions. If you need help reviewing your questions or interview processes, it may be great to assign someone to review Emotional Intelligence tips and see if they can incorporate that in to what you normally do.
Emotional Intelligence is touted as the most required skill of the future (that may have been pre-pandemic), which is, “the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.” This means really reading the room and not putting candidates in an awkward position, or placing unrealistic expectations on them. Oh, and please have a little grace with those virtual interviews – that is also new to some people, so maybe cut them some slack if the nerves have really kicked in.
Press mute when you’re sobbing on a Zoom (and other COVID mental health observations)
(EDITORIAL) COVID-19 had been hard on everybody, but a group often not thought of are those who have mental illness, they struggled in the world before, what about now?
Editors note: This editorial was written anonymously and brings important insight into an issue not often brought up or thought about. We at The American Genius believe this is an important topic to keep in mind about an often silent group that may think they are alone and face extra challenges everyday.
Whether you’re a veteran of working from home, or if you are someone newly learning that muting your mic is important, welcome. Working from home is both rewarding and challenging. This is not an instruction manual on how best to work from home. It’s a guide to working from home and not losing an already delicate mind to existing or potential mental illness.
Some ideas I’d like to convey should ring true now and in the future. However, one aspect is unique to now. I’m writing from the time of Coronavirus, also known as COVID-19. Workers have been divided into two groups, “essential” and “non-essential.” Those considered non-essential were sent home with hopes of slowing the spread of the disease. Those deemed essential, like doctors and grocery store clerks, were considered too vital to our way of life to stay home. One group unable to work, the other unable to stay home.
Then there’s us. A quasi third group. Those who have a job that is so tied to the glowy screen in front of them that it could be performed, in theory, from any location with a computer and internet. Theory was put to practice as many people – accustomed to commuting each day – suddenly learned the joy and perils of working in their jammies.
Working from home is not a new idea, but there had never been such a reason to push so many people to practice it. Some companies, historically, felt uncomfortable with workers staying home. With the arrival of COVID-19 they had a change of heart and now insist on it. Once and for all we will find out which meetings could have just been an email.
The pandemic has been hard on many people. If one is able to avoid the disease itself, they are still subject to staying in and staying isolated. Many never leave their home except for groceries or prescriptions. Some people thrive in this situation, but for others, it puts pressure on the mind and spirit. What about those who already have such a toll on their state of mind due to mental illness?
Working a job, or doing anything, with mental illness can be its own challenge. Mental illnesses and disorders that can affect your work include depression, PTSD, panic disorder, agoraphobia, and borderline personality disorder – just to name a few. So what happens when those who suffer from one or more of these mental health issues have to stay at home every day for work?
There are advantages. If a moment strikes you when you can’t be your professional self, you can often step away and have that cup of tea and peace of mind. Going heads-down and focusing on your task is where you might thrive. However, working from home can still mean having dead-lines and going to live meetings. Needing help or coordination from distant workers can quickly tax your social resources.
There will be a great deal of communication through multiple methods ranging from group video calls to instant messages. Things can get out of control quickly if you don’t set limits. When you want to reach someone it may be unclear which method to use. “Should I email or call them?” you might find yourself pondering. This can frustrate you to the point of not taking action at all. Getting a handle on the lines of communication is vital.
Request to have as few modes of communication as possible. You might find yourself responding to text messages, reading emails, taking phone calls, or answering instant messages from WhatsApp, Slack, or more. It will certainly create a growing obsession towards monitoring notifications rather than actual work.
If a consensus can not be found, give your coworkers clear communication on how you want to be reached, and ask them what they prefer. Needing to check the notification on so many apps is a recipe for a panic attack and overwhelming yourself.
Let’s consider meetings. You’ve seen it by now – or you will – a Zoom meeting with people saying “hello hello, is this thing on?” It’s amazing that in a time we all have computers in our pocket, that it’s still hard to coordinate things like your own audio, video, and even lighting conditions. If you suffer panic attacks it’s best not to be unknotting your earphones while the CEO is about to make a big presentation. Get ready early, check that you can be heard and can hear others. If another meeting is about to start, leave on time. Respect the start time of that new meeting. Overlapping meetings that never end are a sign that boundaries are not being observed. Boundaries are hard for most, but if you have a mental illness they can feel impossible to set.
On a similar note, let’s look at the start and end of work. Being on time is important. Wait, you just need to roll out of bed and turn on a computer? Great, but is it though? You get there just in time to say the proverbial “here!” If you are not ready to work, you are falling behind. Extend this idea to the day itself. When is the day over? Did you start a little late so you feel obligated to work a little later? Do you have a time when other people can expect that you won’t get their message until the next business day? Does working-from-home turn into working-all-the-time?
Getting to work on time also means leaving work on time. Those who have had a reactive or abusive partner know that setting boundaries can escalate situations instead of repairing them. Telling your boss “I’ll like to be offline after 6:30.” can result in the fear that you’ll just be told to close your computer and never return. But these are the boundaries one must set. Finding this work-life balance is doubly important for the mentally ill because we need to reserve time for ourselves for repair and growth.
Among all my reminders to you, remember to leave the house. In the time of COVID-19, this gets convoluted because “Stay home, stay safe!” is the phrase of the day. Having issues going outside can be a part of mental illness. In extreme cases, some people are afraid to go out the front door. With nearly everything being available for delivery now possible to stay home for days, but this is not a good recipe for mental health. When your day ends – and make sure it ends – get some fresh air and possibly some exercise.
Plan the rest of your day ahead of time. Look forward to it and go out and enjoy it. Day to day life is already hard with mental health issues. Don’t let working from home be another hardship. Breath deeply, take care of your mind and don’t let the mixture of home and work overwhelm you. Don’t forget your most important job is to take care of yourself.
5 Secrets to a more productive morning in the office
(EDITORIAL) Productivity is king in the office, but sometimes distractions and other issues slow you down. So what can you do to limit these factors?
Regardless of whether you’re a self-proclaimed morning person or not, more efficient mornings can be catalytic in your daily productivity and output. The only question is, do you know how to make the most of your mornings in the office?
5 Tips for Greater Morning Productivity
In economic terms, productivity is a measure of output as it relates to input. Academics often discuss productivity in terms of a one-acre farm’s ability to produce a specific crop yield, or an auto manufacturing plant’s ability to produce a certain number of vehicles over a period of time. But then there’s productivity in our personal lives.
Your own daily productivity can be defined in a variety of ways. But at the end of the day, it’s about getting the desired results with less time and effort on the input side. And as a business professional, one of the best ways to do this is by optimizing your morning in the office.
Here are a few timely suggestions:
- Eliminate All Non-Essential Actions
Spend the next week keeping a log of every single action you take from the moment your eyes open in the morning until you sit down at your desk. It might look something like this:
- Turn off alarm
- Scroll through social media on phone
- Get out of bed
- Eat breakfast
- Take shower
- Brush teeth
- Walk dog
- Watch news
- Browse favorite websites
- Get in car
- Starbucks drive-thru
- Arrive at office
- Small talk with coworkers
- Sit down at desk
If you do this over the course of a week, you’ll notice that your behaviors don’t change all that much. There might be some slight deviations, but it’s basically the same pattern.
Now consider how you can eliminate as many points of friction as possible from your routine. [Note from the Editor: This may be an unpopular opinion, but] For example, can you skip social media time? Can you make coffee at home, rather than drive five minutes out of your way to wait in the Starbucks drive-thru line? Just doing these two things alone could result in an additional 30 minutes of productive time in the office.
- Reduce Distractions
Distractions kill productivity. They’re like rooftop snipers. As soon as they see any sign of productivity, they put it in their crosshairs and pull the trigger.
Ask yourself this: What are my biggest distractions and how can I eliminate them?
Popular distractions include social media, SMS, video games, news websites, and email. And while none of these are evil, they zap focus. At the very least, you should shift them to later in the day.
- Set Measurable Goals and Action items
It’s hard to have a productive morning if you don’t have a clear understanding of what it means to be productive. Make sure you set measurable goals, create actionable to-do lists, and establish definitive measurements of what it looks like to be efficient. However, don’t get so caught up in the end result that you miss out on true productivity.
“There’s a big difference between movement and achievement; while to-do lists guarantee that you feel accomplished in completing tasks, they don’t ensure that you move closer to your ultimate goals,” TonyRobbins.com mentions. “There are many ways to increase your productivity; the key is choosing the ones that are right for you and your ultimate goals.”
In other words, set goals that are actually reflective of productivity. In doing so, you’ll adjust your behavior to come in proper alignment with the results you’re seeking.
- Try Vagus Nerve Stimulation
Sometimes you just need to block out distractions and focus on the ask at hand. There are plenty of ways to shut out interruptions, but makes sure you’re also simultaneously cuing your mind to be productive. Vagus nerve stimulation is one option for doing both.
Vagus nerve stimulation, which gently targets the body’s vagus nerve to promote balance and relaxation, while simultaneously enhancing focus and output.
- Optimize Your Workspace
Makes sure your office workspace is conducive to productivity. This means eliminating clutter, optimizing the ergonomics of your desk, reducing distractions, and using “away” settings on apps and devices to suppress notifications during work time.
Make Productivity a Priority
Never take productivity for granted. The world is full of distractions and your willpower is finite. If you “wing it,” you’ll end up spending more time, energy, and effort, all while getting fewer positive results.
Make productivity a priority – especially during the mornings when your mind is fresh and the troubles of the day have yet to be released in full force. Doing so will change the way you operate, function, and feel. It’ll also enhance tangible results, like income, job status, and the accolades that come along with moving up in your career.
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