I just finished reading the latest in a series of publications for seniors who – to their surprise and dismay – were recently and suddenly laid off after what they described as decades of lucrative and often exemplary work. Some were in relatively new businesses that were declining, others were in legacy companies that were taking advantage of the pandemic to streamline employees that had grown too large. This stuff is always an unpleasant surprise, but I’m not sure all of these events came as nearly as shocking as they were portrayed, for two main reasons.
First, because anyone over a certain age – call it 50 – in almost any business (whether growing up or slowly moving away) regularly finds themselves looking somewhat anxiously over their shoulders at the people behind them and instead looking at the exit door with longing to Somewhat I wonder if it’s time to think about calling it a profession. They wonder if they can still compete (or really want to), and they aren’t sure that their painfully acquired skills are still valuable. Unfortunately, sometimes experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want. And some experiences don’t make you stronger or make you wiser, they only tire you out.
These moderately impaired people are part of a growing and aging crowd who realize that while expertise and experience are valuable in any organization, the rules are changing. Especially in startup and technology environments, the vision driving the organization is less dependent on skill and execution and more dependent on “creativity,” which means buying into the vision driving the dream. If you are intent on changing the ways things have always been done, you don’t really care how well someone has done it in the past. Sometimes talking about a good game is more important today than taking a walk and getting the job done every day.
Blind belief in a bright future trumps brutal facts and outright realism, in many cases. As you age, a degree of cynicism and practicality slips in and necessarily replaces the unrestrained and inexperienced ideal of your youth. Ideals are replaced by goals, which is logical. Instead of belief, you have experience, but that’s not a conversation that many people care about these days. Caution, diligence and patience are not always required or welcome in the rah-rah world of entrepreneurship, where the key mantra is often “sometimes wrong, but never suspect”.
Second, it is increasingly difficult to comfort yourself as well as relieve some of your fears based on your past efforts, service, and even your proven results. Your work still holds meaning for you, but it does not necessarily have to be valued or appreciated by the authorities at hand. You feel like the goal posts keep moving unfairly, the new metrics and metrics are a bit foreign and a bit of a technology to you, not to mention the fact that the teams, players and decision makers around you keep getting older.
But whether layoffs are shocks, surprises, or perhaps delays, they are part of a larger and more serious problem, especially for under-equipped startups. Fast-growing, fast-growing entrepreneurial firms do not have the luxury of extensive historical processes to address these types of involuntary attrition issues. They don’t have large HR departments to manage people on and off the job. And perhaps most importantly, they have relatively poor narrative documentation regarding the actual contributions of individual employees, which, if available, would clearly assist senior management in making the right hiring, promotion, and dismissal decisions.
Too many growth-stage companies in today’s tiered economy—where specific cutoffs and extreme belt-tightening are required—are ignoring seasoned professionals and abandoning “theoretically” expensive and older talent for three main reasons: 1) They use age as a quick and dirty shortcut to supposed obsolescence because it’s easier than Digging deeply into the actual contributions of individuals; 2) They’ve never seen really hard times, so they don’t appreciate that people who pass you through tricky spots aren’t beginners; They have seen the movie before. and 3) they are in such a hurry to cut their costs and reduce their burn rate that they sacrifice years of customer contacts, vendor relationships, and outdated knowledge, which is all the more important right now, as the business world is still shaky and relatively remote. In bad times, clients and customers turn back to friends and familiar faces — not five-year-olds.
But if you are in a hot seat, what can you do specifically to show your strengths and your worth and try…