How One Difficult Business Decision During Covid-19 Reflects the Importance of Company Culture

The pandemic forced hard decisions on all of us.

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By Mario Ciabarra

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

On May 13, 2020, I began writing a letter to my entire team that I wouldn't end up sending until two very long days had passed. I will never forget what I faced at that moment as a leader of 174 team members.

I'm fortunate in that I have wired my brain so that I am — in most cases — an optimist, even in the most challenging scenarios. When I decided to launch Quantum Metric, I knew that I wanted to build a company culture around optimism and wanted to work with others who also maintained a positive attitude when the going gets tough.

But on May 15, 2020, even the world's fiercest optimist could not overcome the unavoidable fact that 27 individual members of my team would need to be let go that day. I had to tell people I respect and admire that despite bringing their passion, persistence and integrity to the job every single day, we just couldn't keep them.

I thought not only about how the decision would affect our company culture but also about how it would impact these 27 individuals' confidence, careers, livelihoods, and families. I wish I could convey the emotional devastation of this decision I'd tried my very best to avoid making — not just for me, but for every member of the team — but I can't. I can only tell you the story and hope some sense of its impact comes through.

Related: This Program is Vital for Limiting Backlash When You Have to Lay People Off

The darkest days of my career

I have met many CEOs who hide behind falsehoods such as, "It's lonely at the top."

I don't agree — I have never felt that way and will never accept that connotation of what it feels like to be a leader. There are some decisions that a CEO must make that no leader is prepared for. These decisions, while rare, do feel solemn. But, it was important for me to lead with compassion and not dwell on the past.

As the pandemic raged on, I continued to defend my zero-layoff approach while other CEOs, for right or wrong, chose to move forward with 10-15% layoffs. Friends, advisors and even team members urged me to make the hard decision and do the same.

Weeks passed.

After hearing back from customers who needed to delay paying their bills and investors who turned their friendly valuations to apologetic "Sorry, we can't invest at all" notes, the outlook seemed bleak. Suddenly, I saw a possible future where the entire company could be out of a job. I now had to choose between letting 27 team members go on an immediate basis or potentially failing all 174 of us in the long run. There was no good decision, but there was a right one, and it devastated me to make it.

When we decided to lay off our 27 teammates, our entire leadership team made sure to provide severance packages and healthcare for a few months so that those let go could land on their feet. Though difficult and costly, it was the least we could do.

The entire heartbreaking process proved more turbulent and emotional for all of us than we could have ever anticipated, and the following weekend, I sank into a deep depression. The hardest part was knowing I couldn't allow myself to crumble under that weight, but I didn't want to try and hide my disappointment and sadness, either. It wasn't the time to show fear, but I needed to stay true to our company values — and my personal values — by remaining genuine with my team. And the truth was that my heart was breaking.

It's difficult, as a leader, to display confidence without seeming indifferent to the struggles everyone is facing — to strike the right balance between acknowledging the authentic realism of the emotions you're feeling while still projecting the strength needed to light the way forward.

As time passed, we got back on track and regained focus, together. We took a moment to pause and begin to heal from the initial shock. Collectively, we refused to let the pandemic and resultant layoffs leave a negative impact on our company's culture.

Related: He Asked His Team How to Avoid Layoffs. Their Response Thrilled Him.

The light at the end of the tunnel

As the economy rebounded, a few of those let go in May 2020 sought opportunities to return to Quantum when they became available. It wasn't because they needed jobs — all 27 team members had found new positions. It was because they missed the QM team.

Fast-forward to August 2021.

These days, I still interview every candidate at QM. When I saw one of the 27 team members we'd let go appear on my schedule, I got on the phone and picked things up right where we left off. (To protect his identity, I'll call him Mike).

"Mike! How have you been?" I asked. "How is your mom? I'm so excited to have you on our team again. No need to interview with me! Welcome back!"

"Wait!" Mike exclaimed. He wanted to share why he had come back and what had happened since May 2020.

Mike said first that his mom was doing much better and thanked me for asking. He explained that he wanted to come back to the Quantum Metric team because of our culture, because of our people and because of me.

He had only been employed here for three weeks when he was let go, but he assured me that he understood the difficult decisions we had to make to avoid the uncertainty we were facing. However, he wanted to share with me how he was let go — with dignity, with compassion — and how important that was to him and his family, especially as he was caring for his mother. He shared how impactful the six weeks of severance was, how it had meant the difference between him navigating the U.S. welfare system versus being able to simply bridge his cash flow until he found a new job, which he had.

Throughout his professional career, Mike told me he'd heard core values repeated from many leaders but felt they were not consistently demonstrated by their day-to-day actions. For Mike, the moment of genuine compassion he received from us and the authenticity of how he felt heard and seen — that he knew he was important to all of us — resonated with our core values of passion, persistence and integrity. He said he knew that other organizations had let their teams go weeks earlier, and he understood the hard decisions we'd had to make. He showed me that the integrity we displayed by standing behind the team and not abandoning even our newest members during one of the darkest, most uncertain times of their lives meant more to him than anyone could possibly imagine.

Being a leader is hard. There are decisions we sometimes face that leave indelible scars. Our teams look up to us to set the example, to help them navigate through challenges and fears, uncertainty, even pandemics — and we have an ethical duty to display our core values in everything we do, even when those things are hard. Especially then.

We've grown quite a bit since our low point in 2020. During this time, maintaining our company culture has been at the forefront of my mind, as it often seems like far too many companies tend to lose sight of what makes them special during fast periods of growth. My conversation with Mike was a reminder of that. Even as the company grows quickly, we need to make sure we hold onto our values and our culture, both of which are intrinsically tied together and differentiate us from other companies, where people simply clock in and clock out for a paycheck. It's our culture that truly defines us, and it's what keeps employees coming back.

Despite that awful day in May of 2020, I wouldn't trade the honor of being able to lead our team for anything. It's moments like reuniting with team members such as Mike and the truly kind, maybe even optimistic, light he shined on what may have been the darkest day of my career that make this journey so enjoyable.

Related: CEOs Who Get Paid Less Are More Likely to Lay off Their Employees

Mario Ciabarra

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor

Founder & CEO of Quantum Metric

Mario Ciabarra, founder and CEO of Quantum Metric, is a computer scientist and tech entrepreneur who’s passionate about pairing world-class teams with today’s most pressing enterprise-technology challenges.

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