What to do when it all falls apart

The hardest month in my life as a leader was in the spring of 2014. I was VP Firefox at Mozilla. I was one of the senior leaders during Brendan Eich’s ascent to, and resignation from, the role of CEO. And it was how I came to find myself talking to most of the company with no script, in a moment of crisis.

I’m not going to pick off all the old scabs. I’ll give you the short version, in case you genuinely don’t know. If you need to know more, Stephen got a lot of it right in his piece a few months after it all happened. Stephen usually gets it right, and there should be more journalists like him.

The short version

The short version is this: Brendan co-founded Mozilla with Mitchell Baker more than a decade earlier. After a year-long CEO search failed to find a good fit, Brendan stepped into the CEO role. The scrutiny that comes with a role like that quickly brought up a donation he’d made in support of California Proposition 8, a move to oppose same-sex marriage. The donation is a matter of public record and had already come to light years earlier. But the CEO is under a different level of scrutiny.

And so all hell broke loose.

Progressives online demanded he resign. Some Mozilla employees joined in. The tech press spent a few days on it, but then the national and international press got hold of it. Mozilla was the subject of morning talk shows and nightly news. People used words like embattled.

By day four a friend of mine said to me, “It’s already over and he just doesn’t know it yet.” Until that moment, I didn’t know it, either.

Mozilla started to get rage through every channel. My impression is that Brendan and his family got much more. Our staff’s families started to ask why they worked for a homophobic organization. There were boycotts, and opportunists trying to tie their own marketing campaigns to Mozilla’s damage.

I remember the video call when Brendan told the senior staff he was going to resign. I remember how tired he looked.

Having become a cause célèbre for one side of the debate, we came under heavier attack after he left. The weapons of the activist right were unloaded on anything Mozilla. Even today, Brendan’s name is used as an incitement to anger. I may get hateful comments on this post, too. The hate follows any discussion of those days.

I don’t agree with Brendan’s politics, if you care to know. I can’t imagine voting to tell my friends their marriages count for less. It’s a morally repellent idea to me. But I have love for Brendan just the same. And I remember how those days felt. Disagreeing with him didn’t make any of it easier.

And that’s the short version.

Here’s how it feels

When your organization is in crisis, you expect it to feel like panic. But it doesn’t. It feels hollow.

Everyone comes to work but no one works. There’s no music playing in the office, and there’s no chatter in the kitchen. Instead of code or designs on people’s screens, it’s news articles. It’s Twitter.

I’ve talked with the leaders of a lot of organizations, and this feeling is consistent. Layoffs, founder trouble, money trouble, lawsuits. Whatever it is, I’m sure it’s awful. But the hollow will feel the same. Nothing louder than whispers. And occasionally, tears.

The call

I think the day his resignation hit was a Thursday. I sent a note to the fx-team alias letting them know that I’d be in my video room if anyone wanted to talk.

Two people joined right away. Someone joined from our Mountain View office in a room with half a dozen others. Then Berlin. Then Vancouver. Over the next few minutes the tiles of faces filled up until we hit the limit of what Vidyo could display. But the chimes as new people joined kept sounding. And in Mozilla’s Toronto office, the room filled.

People didn’t really know what to ask at first. They just wanted to be where other people were. When the questions did come, they were scattered. People didn’t, by and large, have questions yet. They just felt terrible and wanted not to.

For my part, I didn’t really have answers, either. As a spokesperson, you get accustomed to knowing questions before they’re asked. You’re briefed on each reporter you speak with. You have a set of points you’re trying to get across. Candor and clarity help make an interview connect, but you still never lose sight of key messages.

There were hundreds of people on that video call, and I didn’t have any key messages. I don’t know where I would have gotten any. I didn’t even know who my boss was, exactly.

Three things saved me that day. In the months that followed, the feedback I got was that these three things were enough to bring several people back out of the crisis to a productive place.

    1. Have trust already built.

    When your organization is suffering and they don’t believe you or believe in you, it’s too late to start earning it. That call happened because people felt like I would be straight up. If they didn’t believe that, they never would have showed up in the first place.

    2. Honesty, honesty, honesty.

    It is so much more important in crisis to be honest than to be polished. People asked me how I felt personally, and I told them. I felt tired. I felt sad, and disappointed, and unsure about a lot of things. I suspect that’s not executive orthodoxy. But they all felt it, too. Trying to tell them anything else would have been foolish. Honesty is the only way to lead in crisis. And that honesty gave me permission to do the next thing.

    3. Be clear (and honest, honest, honest) about what comes next.

    You won’t know, of course. Not all of it, at least. But you’ll know some things. The access that comes with being a leader means you might see the next few weeks more clearly, at least. On the call I said, “Everyone will still get paid for their work. We’ll keep shipping Firefox. I’ll work with Mitchell and Chris until we decide on a new CEO. None of that changes, and it’s the same for those of you in other parts of the organization. For today we’re going to process this news, and maybe tomorrow too. But on Monday we have work to do, and I’m going to expect you all to show up for it.”

This may seem obvious to you. Obviously, payroll doesn’t stop when the CEO leaves. Obviously, it’s good to be honest. Obviously, it helps to have concrete work and timelines to focus yourself. Obviously.

But nothing is obvious in a crisis. It’s not obvious to your team that the company will be around in a month. It’s not obvious that you’ll still be there, either. And for you, as a leader during crisis, it’s not obvious that you want to be. Everyone gets tunnel vision. So stick to the basics. State the obvious.

What it feels like to stay in an organization post-crisis and rebuild is a different post. But in the moment, you are a leader in an organization that needs you. Take a deep breath. Figure out how you really feel. And then get on the call.

This article was syndicated with permission from The Co-Pour


Johnathan Nightingale

Johnathan Nightingale is a founder and partner at Raw Signal Group. He is co-editor of The Co-pour and co-author of a book about modern leadership (coming fall 2017). Johnathan has built and operated organizations from 2 people to 250. He was the Vice President of Firefox for Mozilla during a period of intense turmoil inside Mozilla and in the web at large, helped build and launch the first Firefox offerings on Android and iOS, and still cheers every time the open web wins. After Mozilla he joined Hubba as their Chief Product Officer, and helped that team triple in size while improving their diversity stats instead of watching them slide. He is proud to sit on the board of Creative Commons, and is a big believer in the power of mission-based organizations. He has strong opinions about your coffee infrastructure.

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