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Sequoia ‘Black Swan’ memo could steer companies off of the COVID-19 cliff

(EDITORIAL) Venture capital firm, Sequoia sent out a memo to their companies, but also to the world. And the echoes are about to cause tech companies to make irresponsible layoffs that will cripple their brand when this crisis is over.

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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.

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Opinion Editorials

10 tips for anyone looking to up their professional game

(OPINION / EDITORIAL) It’s easy to get bogged down by the details, procrastinate, and feel unproductive. Here are a few tips to help you stay on track and crush your professional goals.

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Self-reflection is critical to a growth mindset, which you must have if you want to grow and improve. If you are ready to take your professional game to the next level, here are some stories and tips to help you remain focused on killing your goals.

1. Don’t compare yourself to others. Comparison is the thief of joy, as the quote goes. And, in the workplace it’s bound to make you second guess yourself and your abilities. This story explains when comparison can be useful, when to avoid it, and how to change your focus if it’s sucking the life out of you.

2. Burnout is real and the harder you work, the less productive you are. It’s an inverse relationship. But, there are ways to work smarter and have better life balance. Here are some tips to prioritize your workload and find more ease.

3. Stop procrastinating and start getting sh@t done. The reason we procrastinate may be less about not wanting to do something and more about the emotions underlying the task. Ready to get going and stop hemming and hawing, you got this and here’s the way to push through.

4. Perfection is impossible and if you seek this in your work and life, it’s likely you are very frustrated. Let that desire go and learn to be happy with excellence over perfection.

5. If you think you’re really awesome and seriously deserve more money, more responsibility, more of anything and are ready to drop the knowledge on your supervisor or boss, you may want to check this story out to see if your spinning in the right direction.

6. Technology makes it so easy to get answers so quickly, it’s hard to wait around for things to happen. We like instant gratification. Yet, that is another reason procrastination is a problem for some of us, but every person has a different way/reason for procrastinating. Learn what’s up with that.

7. Making choices can be a challenge for some of us (me included) who worry we are making the wrong choice. If you’ve ever struggled with decision making, you know it can be paralyzing and then you either make no decision or choose the safest option. What we have here is the Ambiguity Effect and it can be a real time suck. Kick ambiguity to the curb.

8. If you are having trouble interacting with colleagues or wondering why you don’t hear back from contacts it could be you are creeping folks out unintentionally (we hope). Here’s how to #belesscreepy.

9. In the social media era building your brand and marketing are critical, yet, if you’re posting to the usual suspects and seeing very little engagement, you’ve got a problem. Wharton Business School even did a study on how to fix the situation and be more shareable.

10. Every time you do a presentation that one co-worker butts in and calls you out. Dang. If you aren’t earning respect on the job, you will be limited in your ability to get to the next level. Respect is critical to any leadership position, as well as to making a difference in any role you may have within an organization, but actions can be misconstrued. There are ways to take what may be negative situations and use them to your advantage, building mutual respect.

You have the tools you need, now get out there, work hard, play hard and make sh*t happen. Oh, and remember, growth requires continual reflection and action, but you got this.

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Opinion Editorials

Why soft skills are even more essential in online era

(OPINION / EDITORIAL) Since many of us aren’t seeing our co-workers in person these days, our soft skills are even more important in the online working space.

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Skype video chat with person writing in notebook. Soft skills are critical online.

When did we start thinking of “soft” as bad? I mean, we’ve got soft serve (excellent), softball (good exercise), fabric soft-ener (another industry I’m enjoying killing as a millennial). And we’ve got soft skills.

Or at least… I hope we do.

The shift to non-optional remote working has been difficult for a lot of us, especially for everyone who forgets to press mute before making sure the kids behave. But it’ll take more than being hot-mic savvy to make it through the foreseeable future. Brush up on these soft skills while we’re waiting on a vaccine, and it’ll make the coming months (years?) much easier.

1. Tone mastery

Do you know the difference between “Hey, Brenda, can we have a 1:1 at 12:30pm to go over the laser-equipped yoga pants presentation details?” and “Brenda, we need to talk…”?

If not, you might not have a great grasp on how to say with your typey-words what you can no longer say with your facial expressions. You don’t need to throw an emoji or exclamation point into every sentence to get your points across, but you do have the power to keep your coworkers’ heart rates in a safe range by explaining what exactly you need from them in your initial messages.

Use that power wisely.

2. Checking in

There’s no water cooler talk if there’s no water cooler, right?

Making and maintaining connections is more important now than ever, natural introversion be damned. You wanna be a star, don’tcha? Keep up relationships with public shoutouts, inquiries, and reaction images, and you’ll keep up morale while maintaining and boosting your potential for growth in the company.

Even if you’re not a small-talk kind of person, just a drop in for updates, meeting minutes, or sharing a relevant article via appropriate chatrooms and DMs can help hone your soft skills.

“Karen, this MLM article reminded me of your anti-Scentsy tangent you forgot we could all hear, maybe send this to your pushy ex-friend.”

“Hey, Ravindra, how’s the new laptop working out? All good? No ‘Kill all Humans’ protocols like the last one?”

Simple blips like this can add up like couch change. If you’re an admin, make a general chats section, and work in enough time in meetings to allow everyone to have a bit of a chat before getting down to business.

3. Make yourself available

This was important before the pandemic, honestly, but it bears repeating now, especially for everyone in a leadership position. If you’re not making time for check-ins, constantly cancelling meetings, or just generally enjoying being gone when people need you…figure out a way to not. Delegate what you can, bring on a VA, shorten that vacation, whatever you have to do. Everyone’s struggling, and being captain means your crew is looking to you. Don’t let the general air of desperation lull you into thinking a metaphorical keelhauling is out of the question—that extra power still comes with extra responsibility.

Keep yourself from double-bookings, cancellations, and absences as much as possible, and things will continue to improve internally… Even if they don’t in the outside world.

Aesop had a fable about an oak tree and a little river reed. When a storm came, the hardened oak tree fell and died, while the flexible reed bent with the wind and lived. We’re in the storm now, and everyone’s doing their best not to break. Keep yourself rooted friends, but the moral here is to soften up.

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Opinion Editorials

Before you quit your job, ask yourself these 5 questions

(OPINION / EDITORIAL) Frustrated at work? Here are 5 ideas utilizing design thinking and exploration tactics to assess if you really are ready to quit your job.

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Man reclining on beanbag with laptop, thoughtful. Considering tactics before you quit your job.

We have all been there. We are in a job that just doesn’t feel right for us. Maybe we strongly dislike our manager or even our day to day work responsibilities. We find it easy to blame everyone else for everything we dislike. We question life and ask “Is this what life is all about? Shouldn’t I be spending my time doing something I am more passionate about?” But, we probably like the regular paycheck… Thus, we stay there and possibly become more miserable by the day. Some of us may even start to feel physical symptoms of headaches, stomach aches, and possibly depression. We also may go to the internet like this person seeking answers and hoping someone else can tell us what to do:

“I feel conflicted but I want to quit my job. What should I do?

I was thinking of quitting my job because I dislike what I do, and I feel I am underpaid.

However last week my colleague tendered her resignation too. Needless to say, if I leave too, my whole department will fall into a larger mess and that causes some feelings of conflict within me.

Should my colleague quitting affect when I want to leave too? How do I go about quitting now?”

We can definitely empathize with this – it’s really uncomfortable, sometimes sad, and hard to be in a position where we feel we are underpaid and we aren’t happy.

So, how can you navigate a situation like this? How do you figure out if you should just quit your job? How can you be an adult about this?

Here are some exploratory questions, ideas, and some design thinking activities to help you answer this question for yourself.

  • Before you up and quit, assuming you don’t yet have your next opportunity lined up, have you considered asking for a raise – or better yet, figure out how you add value to the organization? Would your supervisor be willing to move you in to a new role or offer additional compensation?
  • If you don’t have a job lined up, do you have the recommended AT LEAST six months of living expenses in your savings account? Some would recommend that you have even more during a global pandemic where unemployment is at an all-time high – it may take longer to find a new position.
  • Do you have a safety net of family or friends that are willing and able to help you with your bills if you don’t have your regular paycheck? Would you be willing to put that burden on them so you can quit your job?
  • Why aren’t you job searching if you are unhappy? Is it because the task seems daunting and the idea of interviewing right now makes you want to puke?
  • What would your ideal job be and what would it take for you to go for it?

Many people claim they don’t like their job but they don’t know what to do next or even worse, don’t know what they WANT to do. To offer a little bit of tough love here: Well, then, that’s your job to figure it out. You can go on Reddit all you want, but no one else can tell you what is right for you.

Here are some ways to explore what may be an exciting career move for you or help you identify some areas that you need to learn more about in order to figure out where work will align with your skills, interests, and passions.

  1. Consider ordering the Design Your Life Workbook that provides writing prompts to help you figure out what it is that you are looking for in a job/career. You may also like the book Designing Your Work Life which is about “How to Thrive and Change and Find Happiness at Work”.
  2. Utilize design thinking to answer some of your questions. Make a diamond shape and in each of the four corners, write out the “Who” you want to be working with, “What” you’d like to be doing, “Where” you’d like to be, and “Why” you want to be there or doing that kind of work.
  3. Conduct informational interviews with people doing work that you think you might be interested in. Usually these conversations give you lots of interesting insights and either a green light to pursue something or validation that maybe that role isn’t right for you either.
  4. Get your resume updated. Sometimes just dusting off your resume, updating it, and making it ready gives you a feeling of relief that if you did really want to pursue a new job, you are almost ready. Consider updating your LinkedIn profile as well.
  5. Explore what you can do differently. A lot of what we can be frustrated about can be related to things out of our control. Consider exploring ways to work better with your team or how to grow to become invaluable. Tune in to Lindsey Pollak’s podcast, The Work Remix, where she gives great ideas on how to navigate working in current times where there are five generations in the workplace. There may be ways you need to adjust your communication style or tune in to emotional intelligence on how to better work with your supervisor or employees. Again, focus on what is within your control.

You may decide that you need to quit your job to be able to focus your energy on finding a better fit for you. But at the same time, be realistic. Most of us have to work to live. Everyone has bills, so you may continue working while you sort out some of the other factors to help you find a more exciting prospect. Either way, wishing you all the best on this journey, and the time and patience to allow you to figure it out.

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