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Leadership in the Buff – Lessons from A CEO Who’s Naked (But Not Afraid)

resized-leadership-pinnedJust this week I received an email from the CEO of Buffer, one of the productivity apps I use, that was simply astonishing. In this open letter to his customers, CEO Joel Gascoigne shares the difficult news that Buffer had to lay off 10 people. The accompanying blog post went into even more depth – sharing bank account details, cost-cutting measures and more. We’re talking actual dollars.

Let’s just be clear… most companies don’t even share this type of information with their own employees, much less their customers.

As someone who has spent my career studying the underlying behaviors and qualities that embody true leadership, this email from a stranger perfectly sums up the model of the leader we should all strive to be.

See if you don’t agree…

1. Tell the truth — even when it sucks.

Most companies go to great pains to hide actual information. If a CEO is announcing layoffs, they’ll usually find some euphemism such as “restructuring,” “reengineering” or my personal favorite, “simplifying.” The actual word “layoff “ is rarely used, and certainly not accompanied by any numbers. Not only was the subject line clear (Tough News: We’ve Made 10 Layoffs at Buffer) but more importantly, Joel goes on to share with us why it happened and how it affected everyone involved.

Lesson learned: When you tell the truth, you build trust and can then move forward rather than look backward.

2. Admit your mistake clearly and quickly — even when it hurts.

Joel gets to the heart of the matter in the third sentence of his email: “Reaching this situation is a result of mistakes in the last year that are the biggest I’ve made in my career so far… we grew the team too big, too fast.” I’m sure you’re having the same reaction I did… this is a CEO admitting he/she made a mistake? What?
Rather than having the entire organization armchair quarterback what happened, tell them quickly and clearly so everyone can learn from the mistake.

Lesson learned: Being vulnerable will build loyalty.

3. Be clear about what you’ve learned — every…single… time.

Joel went on to share graphic details of the missteps, and more importantly what he and his leadership team learned along the way, both about themselves and the business.

Lesson learned: When you identify what you learned, it’s far less likely you’ll make the same mistake twice.

4. Own it — you are the leader, remember?

Almost any time you hear a company talk about bad news, it’s someone else’s fault. Market factors. Increased competition. The buzzwords may change, but it’s just the same giant excuse. If you can’t see that something within your organization contributed to the situation, how can you fix it? In Joel’s case, not only does he clearly, directly articulate the problem, but he admitted something that I’ve probably never heard a CEO say. He blamed part of the problem on his ego. “Reflecting on it now, I see a lot of ego and pride reflected in that team size number.”

Lesson learned: You can’t fix a problem you can’t see.

For some reason, today’s CEOs seem to feel that admitting mistakes and accepting responsibility weakens them. After reading this honest assessment, complete with go-forward game plan, I believe the exact opposite.

What do you think? What would your team say if you were totally honest about something they would NEVER expect you to be?



  1. Denise Montana on July 11, 2016 at 1:39 pm

    Thanks for sharing the story and lessons learned. It is very easy to think back to examples where I have seen ego contribute to bad decisions as well as blaming others for missteps and miscalculations. Can this transparency be possible in larger, public firms?

  2. Christine Leffler on February 4, 2017 at 3:56 pm

    I am also a Buffer user and huge fan of their product. I was first astonished and then deeply impressed by Joel’s message last year. Their company’s transparency in all matters continues to impress me. It struck me as extremely courageous act to admit their mistakes but also made me even a bigger fan of their brand.

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