You don’t go into building a practice with the view to dismantle it. You put out a mission that’s clear, that people are attracted to because it aligns with their own view of themselves and the world, and this coming together of people builds a culture that you share, that grows and continues to articulate itself to the next person, the next client, the next investor. It’s a matter of pride, an expression of satisfaction and over time it takes on a life of its own, beyond any one individual.
However these places you build, whether they be companies, communities or simply groups of people, change their shape and their direction as they evolve and that’s a deeply challenging part of creating a space that people love.
At the end of November we had to say goodbye to fifteen people at Portable. That meant making these roles redundant and also shifting the duties of a few other people across the team of 75 people.
We made the strategically hard decision to double down in digital product creation and strategic design, which meant moving away from other areas that we felt were going to be too competitive for us going into 2024 and beyond. In addition, we’ve felt the downstream effects of the PWC controversy and significant cuts to public sector spending, which equates to a quieter pipeline of work.
This meant that we’ve had to dismantle parts of Portable that we invested a lot of time, passion and energy into creating, including saying goodbye to people that were bringing those visions to life. It’s something that myself and other leaders are deeply sorry for, that we continue to grapple with and try to reconcile, especially in a business that is purpose led.
It’s not the first time I’ve personally been through redundancies or letting go of a part of a business that I’ve been significantly invested in. I can think of at least four times we’ve had to farewell people in this way in the past 18 years.
You ask yourself, is it because I’m just crap at running a business? Do we just pick bad ideas to invest our energy into? That’s certainly been the case in the past. Or is each time a reflection of inherent failures in the way we’ve structured ourselves or grown? Surely if it’s happened multiple times then you have to look at yourself and say it’s on you?
The fact is that each time has its different set of circumstances, which tend to converge all at once to set a new direction in a very familiar way. You embark on a series of calculated-as-best-you-can risks and hope that they pay off. In most cases they do and that means you hire people into roles, into that culture you’ve created. Eventually a series of events come along, a stock market crash, a horrible pandemic, a new competitor, and market-wide changes, forcing you to act. It doesn’t matter how far in advance you see it coming - it still forces changing in differing magnitudes.
What’s consistent each time is the pain and angst in coming up with the decision that will ultimately see people you respect and admire leave the orbit of your work life and having to balance the hard choices of redundancy payments, notice periods and end points against creating safety, stability, extended runway, predictability and assuredness for the majority of people who remain.
It’s about human interaction and empathy, but let’s be transparent, it’s also about money. It’s the facilitator, until it’s not. That’s what makes it hard. It doesn’t matter what the law’s definition of fair and unfair is (well it does and that’s important) or what intentions you have, the balance plays out for everyone individually, in the moment and that makes it hard. And yes, it’s harder for people who have lost their jobs, it's awful to have the agency removed from an important aspect of your life.
When change happens it affects everyone, those that remain have to make their own sense of it, feel their own guilt and continue to show up and do the work.
This is not about writing to the world to ask it to shed tears for myself or leadership in general who are tasked to keep businesses growing, salaries rising and promotions consistent. It’s more about reflecting, sharing the experience, acknowledging the change and looking for answers beyond the binaries.
A question I’ve asked myself through this process is why don’t we hear more from leaders of the local businesses that we respect and admire talk honestly about big changes in their work that affect local people? I see it consistently with larger organisations. Meta, Amazon, Spotify: there are clear public announcements, with rationales and short reflections. I guess that has to do with their financial reporting requirements and status in the media. There’s a lot of shame that’s wrapped around it, hurt and also sensitivity. Nothing you can say will change the experience for people.
Over the past week I’ve heard people say, how do we make sure there’s not a next time? I think the real response is, how do we get better at making the experience as easy as possible for people, whilst getting the balance right when it does happen again? Because I can’t say that this type of change won’t happen again sometime in the future.
I think the answer is talking about the experience, not just internally but externally. Seeking to hear from people who have been through it before and not just business owners, but staff at other organisations, from different contexts. Removing the temptation to go it blind without seeking council from a wide array of stakeholders.
The reality is that business will go on for the majority of people working with us today and the real need is to find ways of talking about what has happened and helping everyone to enhance their understanding, without simply brushing it all under the rug or shuttering risk and innovation.
This is even more pertinent for purpose led businesses. Being a B Corp or certifying 1% for the planet doesn’t remove any of the commercial realities when the aforementioned factors come into play. It makes it even harder to reconcile and navigate a way forward, without a network of people who can help guide you from that lens.
When you do start to move on with the process of reimagining what the next phase will look like, it’s hopefully those other organisations and connections that can guide you towards better cumulative decisions and experiences.