This holiday season is particularly awkward for me. The last firm I worked for met an untimely demise. While the reasons for its failure are not the focus of this blog, they are a story I might explore later. Right now, I want to talk about what I’ve gone through as the former leader of a company that went bankrupt. I am sure that journey is never easy; and never has been. However, going through this in an age where social media bleeds into our work lives, especially on platforms like LinkedIn, has been what I believe to be a uniquely painful ordeal.
I never anticipated the failure of our company, nor the emotional cascade that followed. What made me realize the depth of this pain were the constant LinkedIn reminders as I watched teammates and friends search for jobs. They are incredibly talented, and I’m sure they will find new positions, but being reminded minute by minute of our failure has been surprisingly painful.
Aside: I know this is far more painful for them. Protecting that team, those people, was our highest and most important job. As you will see later, not because it was the right, humane, or kind thing to do (though it was all three of those things), but it was also the value maximizing thing to do for the company. A grotesque but no less true business sentiment that I have become all too familiar with through this ordeal.
A bit of background: our company was a small tech firm tackling complex problems in a niche vertical market. Over about ten years, we did some incredible things. But the most remarkable achievement, I argue, was assembling a team of people who genuinely cared for one another. I know the saying “work is like family” is a cliché, and I understand there’s no true substitute for family. But I can say without reservation that the people I worked with were people I loved, cared for and respected immensely. Participating in their growth and the growth of a multinational organization has been, aside from my actual family, the thing I’m most proud of.
I’ve been in this industry for a long time, so many of the people who worked with us were also friends. Hell, some of these folks I have known for over three decades. Having to navigate this business failure with them was more challenging than I could have ever imagined. The final stages of a company going through bankruptcy are not easy. They are complicated, and for me and our leadership team, who had never been through this before, even with extensive legal help, the waters were incredibly rocky. This led to a serious challenge in communication, which had been the lifeblood of our organization.
As we went through bankruptcy, we realized that it wasn’t our intellectual property that was the true value driver of our organization, despite it being impressive. The real value was the team we had built. The talent we amassed was part of that, but more importantly, it was how that talent collaborated and communicated. People often speak of a situation where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We had that. From our company founder and beyond, a spirit of what it meant to be on this team evolved over time and was impacted by every single member of the team. That authenticity: the evolutionary growth that saw steps forward and steps backwards both providing experiences that fueled our maturation helped to foster a team that cared more about each other than any individual. They demonstrated that constantly, for each other and for our clients.
Now, a couple of months after the formal demise, which is still ongoing due to legal processes, I’ve done what communicating I can. I’ve written recommendations and I will write more because I can’t think of anyone from my former company I wouldn’t recommend. I do these things because they are the right thing to do, and those people deserve it. I do these things because it is the only way I feel like I can make better the situation that they are facing. I do these things because right now, for my professional side, they are the only thing that makes me feel any better.
My former teammates deserve far more. But I do these things because that’s what I can still do. And when I check LinkedIn and see updates, it’s a constant reminder of what I perceive as my failure.
Aside: I want to interrupt myself here. I almost never use “I” when I discuss leadership. There are a million (or at least 10’s) of great reasons not to, but the most direct one is that rarely are the things a leader does done by them in isolation. We did great things because we had a great team. At all levels. That said, this article is very personal, so I apologize if I feel like I am focusing on me.
This isn’t something they teach you in school or that I learned anywhere else I worked. If there’s a takeaway from this blog, other than my own catharsis in writing it, it’s to cherish the teams you have the privilege of building. You never know when they will go away. While I think myself and the leadership team did the best we could, I have learned numerous lessons about managing such an end game. I am sure, in time, I will be able to articulate those and attempt to craft them into “Learning Lessons,” but right now, I simply want to let anyone else out there going through this know they are not alone. I want my team to know they are not alone and to know that I am sorry. That if I could have done anything more; I would have. If there was anything more the entire leadership team could have done, we would have.
That this was not their fault.
Aside: Sorry for the Good Will Hunting reference but I had to lighten this a tad. The thought of going through this again might stop me from ever trying to build a team like this again. Captaining a ship that sinks has been the worst experience in my business life. That part, I could have projected.
The reminders throughout the day, however, are something I never anticipated or contemplated. Well, this has been a melancholy and meandering post. As for a silver lining, I see incredible people in those LinkedIn posts. Talented individuals who are even better human beings. People who I had the honor of leading for a brief period in their careers. I see friends and family who I hope to stay in touch with and hear of their future success stories over a beverage or meal. I look forward to the stories of their new teams and growth. The new challenges they use their amazing talent and passion to conquer. These will be better days.
As for me (and shit, this post has been more self-centered than anything I have ever written), I hope to find my sea legs again and be willing to take on such a challenge in the future.
Because as miserable as watching the end of this movie has been, I still remember the beginning.