Deborah Pead, Founder and Executive Chair

The Dignity in Defeat

Years ago, a gang of thugs attacked my husband. No provocation, no insults or threats, no prelude to the bash, just a bunch of thugs endowed with more biceps than brains.

It wasn’t just his pride that was injured – his handsome face was well and truly pummelled.  He  could hardly talk though his fat lips or see out of his bruised and swollen eyes. His instinct was to hide away until he looked more like his normal self. Which was what he did until an elderly friend, who had been a high-ranking military man, popped round to visit with the sage advice “a brave warrior should never be ashamed to show his wounds.”

I have been reflecting on that wisdom lately in the wake of all the job cuts, layoffs, restructures, and wave after wave of businesses facing closure or liquidation in our tough economic slowdown.

And when this does happen, some leaders may want to retreat and lick the wounds, however this is the moment to get up, dress up and front up.

In my forty plus years in communications, I have been involved in many business launches and new stores and factory openings. They are always exciting occasions, filled with optimism and high on ambition.  And at the opposite spectrum I have been briefed on several closures and layoffs. It feels particularly dire and close to home right now as many good friends and associates are affected in the prime of their careers.

I’ve seen some shockers where directors blamed everything but their own inaction. I’ve seen occasions where staff arrived to find offices locked and were unable to retrieve personal belongings. And I’ve seen occasions, like the recent Kate Sylvester brand announcement where the owners Kate and Wayne announced the forthcoming closure on their terms with great grace and with a style that represents the mana of their brand.  Respect to them.

And there are consistent hallmarks to successfully managing the difficult news of a closure.

Manage the closure with care.  Treat it with the same diligence as you apply to a launch. You appoint a team under nondisclosures and assign responsibilities that need to be fulfilled with empathy and honesty.

Be Visible. Lead the procedure from start to finish and be visible. Go to the plant, be on the shop floor, base yourself in the factory. You cannot demonstrate empathy from an ivory tower.

Prioritise people over property.  Treat your colleagues with respect and fairness, do your very best by them and communicate openly and frequently.  They will be reeling with shock and confusion and will need to hear clear and consistent messaging over and over again. And the more your colleagues hear it from the leaders, the less room there is for rumours and misinformation.

Work closely with your HR team. Honour all your company commitments, give people good notice and bring in additional resources to offer your colleagues support with retraining, CV’s, job searching skills and help in finding new jobs.

Be transparent. Communicate consistently with your external stakeholders as soon as you have first advised your staff.

Meet the media. Clients are keen to talk to media about the launch of a business and the same recognition needs to be demonstrated when things go bad. A good leader will be respected for fronting up, no matter how bad the news is. And by fronting up you have a better chance of managing the message.  Sunfed plant-based meat did this well through media and own messaging when the start-up's chief executive Shama Sukul Lee announced the company would be closing.

Continue your customer care.  Be clear what the closure of layoffs will mean for customers and communicate how they will be impacted, tell them what happens to gift vouchers and credits, and recommend alternative services.

Be honest and empathetic. Acknowledge the failure and explain the context. Often there are very good reasons for the closure. Honesty and empathy will go a long way to help your audience understand the circumstances.

The reality is we are in a recessionary environment. The latest Centrix data shows liquidations across all sectors are up 19%, with the retail trade sector up a staggering 57%.

We are likely to continue to see reduced spending, and there will be many more closures and layoffs across most sectors.

A combination of tightening the belt, increased costs for businesses, decreased demand, new shopping trends and low consumer confidence will leave many businesses feeling vulnerable and battered and bruised.

Yet brave warriors, no matter how wounded, are respected for their courage and resilience and for dignified leadership in defeat. And they never give up. They turn every experience, even the bad ones, into learnings for the next opportunity.

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