The Clash of Community, Company, and Celebrity

Posted on January 19, 2009

In my last post I noted a pinch of rage over John Plocher’s Sun RIF. A commenter rightly see’s a divided logic between my prior statements that Sun hasn’t downsided enough and my anger over a single individual whom I know. I’ve edited the prior post, but I think the paradox is an interesting one on which to expound.

What happens when someone of public notoriety or celebrity leaves a firm within which that person gained that reputation? This is not at all a new problem, but one that is, thanks to blogs such as this one and the ever hungry daily media, more vicious than in the past.

Within any given organization, each employee has some definable amount of presence. To co-workers, to other teams, to corporate partners, to friends, to family, to customers, to media, etc. The larger the footprint of that presence the more backlash may be felt when that person leaves. When anyone leaves an organization they cause the water to stir more than when they arrive. The cost of the departure increases with the size of there presence and influence. Even those with a small footprint can have a significant impact on moral. Those with a large footprint can impact the companies future as a whole.

Lets start with an extreme case in the news today… Steve Jobs. There are thousands of employees at Apple doing amazing work, but the companies image is tied to his face in a way that few other CEO’s are. The upshot is his amazing reputation. The downside is a void, which he did not prepare the world to expect by increasing the public presence of his fellow executives. Is this good leadership or bad?

A more common example, especially in the old-world-economy, was when a sales manager would leave… especially if it was abrupt or caused by a RIF. If improperly handled end customers could loose confidence in the vendor.

A less common but long running example is that of anyone within your organization who has written a book, column, or attained similar notoriety. Adrian Cockroft was an excellent example. The face of Solaris performance leaves Sun. Was it scandalous? No, but plenty of customers scratched their heads and wondered if this was a bad sign. Sun has many other such examples. Never the less, the number of people that fit into this category are few.

With the rise of corporate blogging and community building efforts the danger grows significantly. Rather than a handful of writers and speakers, there are now hundreds of externally known and respected employees. The advantages are clear, the enterprise is now a collection of human faces, not just a cold logo and press release. The danger is, however, equally clear… when customers see faces, what happens when you RIF some of them? Even if they leave under the best of terms, end customers now are interested in who will fill that slot in the org chart, and will that person be as forthcoming and public, etc. There are organizational and emotional ties that are being severed in a new and unique way, which are difficult to sometimes quantify.

Lets make this personal… if Sun was not so public, did not embrace blogging so much, and did not create a community that provided so much transparency, would commentaries such as this one even exist? As the comment to my former entry rightly pointed out, how can one deal with both the economic reality that re-orgs and cuts must occur to meet Wall Street expectations, while at the same time endure the public outcry of individuals who may be effected?

One thing that is clear, increasing your public notoriety is as essential in this new economy as building your resume. Not for vanity sake, but self preservation.

The RIF’s are unpleasant. I never wish to see anyone loose their job. Will they ever be surgical or otherwise perfect? Never, sadly. Naturally, we all have a variety of opinions on why this is so, but I don’t want to get into the dirt more than I already have.

In the case of communities the situation becomes all the more difficult. Not only do you impact the employee and internal co-workers, but also those external persons within the community. The same internal effects on moral and capability concerns now trickle outside. This only become more complex as their position and prominence in that community increases. The scars are made worse if that person does not go onto another position that affords them the same opportunity for involvement, which it rarely does, at least not with the equal ability for commitment.

In the OpenSolaris community we feel these RIF’s significantly. One might argue that we should not, business is business afterall, but the impact is inevitable. One can only hope that this impact is part of the consideration that goes into the decision to release that given employee. We have seen a great many leaders within our community come and go, both willingly and unwillingly. When combined with our current reliance on Sun leadership the resulting opinions and feelings are decidedly more pointed. As with the extreme example of Steve Jobs… is this good leadership or bad?

There are great opportunities and advantages to opening a company more and more… but there must also be reciprocal disadvantages, and this issue is chief among them. For customers and community members to not express disappointment, disapproval, or even the occasional rage would be inhuman.