Firing executives

It is always painful to let people go. When you fire an executive, it can be hard not only on you and the executive but also on his entire organization. 1 There are some steps you can take, though, to minimize the uncertainty and confusion that come along with these difficult decisions.

Before you let an executive go, you should make sure to have the following in place:

1. Discuss it with your board. Your board of directors will want to be aware of any key executive changes before you make them. It is possible one or more of your board members has worked with the executive before, or referred them to you.

It is best to call each board member 1:1, explain to them why you want to make the change and how you plan to do it (including a potential transition plan), and if needed the details of any severance package. Once you have spoken to people 1:1 you can do a follow up board call if needed in the case that active discussion is necessary.

2. All the paperwork for the separation agreement with the executive. Your lawyers can prepare this for you. You should also decide on the severance you’ll be offering and other details up front.

It is sometimes helpful to write out a script for the discussion. Whatever you say, it’s important that you:

  • Be firm. This is a done deal.
  • Be professional.
  • Be clear on your reasoning.

If you have been managing your employee well, this should not be a big surprise to him. That is, you should already have had a series of conversations around fit, responsibilities, alignment, etc.

3. Transition plan. Who will manage all of this person’s reports? Make sure to clearly communicate whether this change to a new manager is a short-term one, an interim solution, or a permanent change.

4. Communication plan. You should have a clear view of what will be communicated when, and to whom on the team. If the person (or your company) are especially high profile you will also want to have reactive press ready to go. Alternatively, you and the person being fired may negotiate on, or agree on, a common story to be shared with the press or in a tweet. Don’t be petty. Allow the executive to leave with dignity and reputation intact.

For example, a communication plan when letting go of Bob, VP of marketing, might look like the below. This is an idealized plan and you should not expect things to necessarily go so smoothly.

  • Tuesday, 9am: Meet with Bob and inform him that he’s being let go. Discuss how to position this with others in the company and agree on approach.
  • Tuesday, 10am: Let your direct reports know that Bob has been let go. Explain concisely some background on the decision and provide clear guidelines on how your team should communicate it to their reports, exception handling, etc. Explain the transition plan—e.g., that Sarah, who runs sales, will also run marketing, and that this change is permanent. You should obviously have already discussed this with Sarah in advance.
  • Tuesday, 11am: Along with Sarah, meet with the marketing team to let them know about the change.
  • Tuesday, 11:30am: Email the company to let them know about the change. Explain the transition plan and the objectives for the team (if well-defined and consistent). If there are any concerns of impact to specific people on the marketing team, you or Sarah can meet with them to discuss, depending on the context and relationship.
  • Friday weekly all-hands: Be ready to answer questions, with a well-prepped FAQ.
  1. See related post by Ben Horowitz. Link on []