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When the company is dying
Not all leaders can adapt to change
When I first started working at a tech company back in 2006, I truly believed in the product. I understood its place in the market. I’d even been known to say, “This product is like gold: if customers buy it, they’ll never leave” (because it was so good).
At the time I joined, the company was 10 years old and still small. The financial recession of 2008 hit hard and the company had layoffs, but then bounced back the following year. Larger competitors were able to innovate faster, but I still held firm that the product met a specific need.
In 2014, I became the product manager, responsible for product direction (as much as I could, given the CEO’s final say). The product was starting to show its age, due to lack of investment over the years. It only got worse. Customers started leaving and I was often responsible for trying to determine why they had canceled their contract. More and more, I heard that they were going to competitors.
By the time I left in early 2021, I no longer believed that the company would survive. Not only was the product so far behind in technology that it had reached a “scrap the whole thing and start over” state, but the company was trapped in many outdated ways of operating and working.
And it made me sad because there was so much potential, squandered by mismanagement.
You should absolutely leave a good company, good job, or good boss if you have reasons to believe that the company is dying. Things can unravel quickly and no reason to go down with a sinking ship.
Falling behind competitors
Every company is selling something. Even setting aside for-profit companies for a moment: schools and higher ed might become less desirable or a non-profit is unable to bring in new donations.
Consumers have a choice and any company that sits back on its successes will eventually fall behind.
One reason (of many) that I thought my former employer had a secure spot in the market was that changing software solutions was an incredible chore. It was an expensive and often painful process. But technology improved to the point that switching was far easier — which is now true across many enterprise industries. Even easier for subscription products and services with simple online signup and cancellation. It’s also easier to find competitors. Just Google “alternatives to X” and you’ll get a list.
Companies literally cannot afford not to invest in themselves and it’s not enough to keep up with today’s world. It’s about planning for the future: both with product and people.
In total fairness: I don’t have the answer to how companies should grow. What I witnessed was a company that would never take on additional employees unless it was absolutely certain it could afford to (which was often long past the time when the headcount was needed). More development staff would have meant churning out new features faster but I’ve seen the ugly side of venture capital investments and the “growth at all costs” mentality. And not every company has the ability to take on debt to grow. But a leadership team has to solve this conundrum in some way when the incoming business isn’t enough to offset what the company needs to grow and remain competitive.
No matter what you’re role, it’s important to be aware of what competitors offer and have a pulse on how they’re innovating. You may not have access to the obvious indicators (like slowing sales), but listen to your gut.
Falling behind in operations or tactics
Inefficient processes can be the death of any company. Customer support can’t respond fast enough due to outdated tools. Products aren’t shipped fast enough.
Think of the last time you were checking out on an e-commerce site and had a terrible experience. Think of the time you abandoned a cart. Customer experience is everything and volume will eventually reach a point where the old tactics don’t work anymore.
This applies not only to tools, but tactics and the company’s outward image to potential customers. You can’t grow if potential customers immediately turn away — no matter how good the product is.
The tech company I worked for had no marketing strategy and was using sales tactics from 1996. The world of buying — especially B2B — had changed dramatically. The CEO lamented that things never improved, but had no idea how to fix them. I finally bluntly pointed out that a website that wasn’t mobile-friendly was a huge problem, stating that if I were a buyer, I would have no faith in a tech company with a crappy website.
After leaving that tech company, I joined another company that was an operational disaster. Inefficiencies were everywhere and after about a week of working there I marveled that anything got done, ever. I voiced my concerns up the food chain, but was ignored: literally no one had time to take a step back and make things better.
I left the company after only 8 months and it has since gone into a death spiral. Poor operations weren’t the sole reason for its downfall, but it certainly didn’t help.
Then I landed at a company with a ton of inbound leads/sales. So the company didn’t bother to invest in it’s brand or marketing. Then when the economy took a hit in 2022, the company suffered, big time. And it was too late to “catch up” with competitors that had a strong brand and network.
(From one dumpster fire to another. No wonder I ended up going out on my own.)
Falling behind workplace norms
Does your employer operate under a “command and control” model? Shun flexibility? Think DEI is a fad? Scoff at pronouns? Require a 4-year degree when it has nothing to do with the job? Ignores accessibility?
While marginalized groups have fought The System for years, it will be harder and harder for companies to attract new employees if they don’t adapt to change.
Many current employees already said, “Yeah, no thank you” to outdated work models during The Great Resignation. And while current layoffs and a tightening economy have put pressure on workers, the upcoming Gen Z is still in the “Definitely, nope” mode. They’re just not having it. And — like it or not, Existing Bossess — that’s the future workforce (see “falling behind” sections above).
Job hopping is totally a thing. Working for companies that align with values is totally a thing. Saying “no” to working after hours is totally a thing.
And it will eventually catch up to companies. Maybe not today, maybe not next year. But the upcoming generation has a completely different approach to work. If that’s your employer, they’ll eventually fall behind because they won’t be able to attract and retain talent.
People have wised up and know that they’re doing the work and they deserve certain things in return.
Companies can’t demand more and give less.
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