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The Best Way to Deliver Bad News to Employees

Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat
Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat Red Hat

The Leadership Insider network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question “What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career?” is by Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Red Hat.

The most important lesson I’ve ever learned in my career came to me when I worked at Delta Air Lines. Specifically, it was the day Delta filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. I was chief operating officer at the time and responsible for developing and implementing the turnaround plan. Prior to this day, I was either locked up with a small group of advisors working on the plan or in a New York conference room pitching our plan to financial lenders.

The day the company filed for Chapter 11 was a horrible day for every employee at Delta. For me, it was filled with press interviews, calls, and meetings. At some point I was asked if I would be willing to stop by the break room at the airport that night to meet with the nightshift line mechanics. Our turnaround plan included significant changes to our maintenance department, including pay and benefit cuts. Their jobs were on the line and morale was low. I agreed to speak with them. I didn’t realize though at the time that saying yes to this request would become the best leadership lesson I would ever learn.

By the time I arrived at the break room that night I was tired. I really hadn’t thought about what I would say. This wasn’t a pre-planned or pre-scripted event. As I walked in, and saw a couple hundred people staring at me, I had no idea what I was going to say. I realized in that moment the best thing I could do was tell them the truth. So I apologized and let them know we had a plan in place to revive the airline. But it would take real sacrifices to execute on it. I then launched into the same 45-minute speech about our plan that I had been giving to various bankers throughout the day. It was a lot of detail about arcane networks and fleet concepts, but I thought it was important for everyone to understand how they fit into the overall plan.

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When I finished, they looked at me for what seemed like hours. Then they started asking questions – lots of them. They were not about the pay cuts and benefits changes. Instead, they asked detailed questions about the plan itself. They were interested in how it would work and what they could do to make the plan successful. Eventually, word got out about my trip to the break room that night; people all over the company wanted to hear the same message. That led us to create a more formal program that we called the “Velvet Rope Tour,” where I joined other Delta leaders and meet with groups of several hundred employees at a time sharing the plan and answering questions.

Skipping ahead a few years, I was walking through the international terminal in Atlanta when a pair of Delta mechanics approached me. They mentioned the speech I had given them that night in the airport break room and thanked me for laying out the plan, especially the details I shared about our intent to expand Delta’s international presence. They both had taken that plan to heart and transferred to the international concourse, knowing they would be a big part of the company’s turnaround. Virtually everyone wants a sense that his or her work is making a difference. People thirst for context – we want to know the “what’s” and the “why’s” of a company’s direction, and be part of making it successful. We want to know how what we do is important to the whole. And when we do, it’s much easier to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Read all responses to the Leadership Insider question: “What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career?”

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