Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes, Turn and face the strange  David Bowie

Just this week I’ve been on the receiving end of a half dozen of those emails. They start with the news that a valued colleague has made the decision to move on. It goes on to thank everyone for a wonderful experience and ends with best wishes.

It’s that time of year. Year end bonuses have been paid. Quotas have been earned. Options have vested. And so people are moving on. Or arriving.

I grew up an army brat. Every spring my dad would come home from work and tell us where we were moving to that summer. I didn’t know that people lived any other way. Each fall I’d find myself in a new school, facing the strange.

So I’m a fan of changes. I crave them. And so when I get one of those emails, I’m happy for the person and hopeful that they will find new challenges and new colleagues and friends in their next endeavor.

But what about the company that is being left behind? Well every departure is an opportunity to rethink the role and the organization. You can’t find an exact replica of the person who has left. But you can find a person who will bring different things. You can split the role in two. Or you can even choose to eliminate it.

My advice to the leaders of our portfolio companies is to embrace change and the possibilities it brings. And, even more importantly, I advise leaders to be open and transparent about the change and how it opens up opportunities for the organization.

The thing I caution against is the tendency to get upset at departures and departing employees. I’ve seen leaders take the mob boss approach of “your are dead to me now” with departing employees. The better approach, which I think is a hallmark of great companies, is the idea that departing employees who leave on great terms are roving ambassadors for your organization. After all, you never know when you are going to come across someone again in business. And it might be a situation where you need something from them.

It sucks to lose a valued colleague or employee or boss. It creates anxiety in the organization about what is going to happen next. But if you are working in or leading a startup you signed up for a boatload of change. Accept it. Embrace it. Make it work for you. Because you can’t make it go away.


Comments (Archived):

  1. jason wright

    the idea of it being a spy network appeals to me. this is exactly how organisations like the CIA work. employees leave without leaving.

  2. JLM

    .As an Army brat myself, I remember packing (always left to Mom because Dad was gone to the new assignment). I remember we didn’t have much to pack. Half a duffel bag. Army wives and moms are the toughest women in the world.When we arrived, I always got to paint my room. I got to select the color as long as the Post Engineers had it. [Sherwin Williams, Super Kem-Tone, check me on this.] Ceilings were always white. At age 8, I could cut the paint in next to the trim and the ceiling and operate a roller. I knew how to clean up (latex paint only). Probably why I became a real estate developer later in life.I remember arriving at my new destination and getting out my baseball mitt and finding the first kid I could and saying, “Who’s in charge of the baseball team? I’m your new center fielder.”That simple tactic allowed me to assimilate and adjust and make a single enemy — the kid who used to be playing center until I showed up.I was enamored of #7 of the New York Yankees. Mick started his career in the same year I was born and he quit when I was 17, so it worked out well for both of us. He roamed center field and so did I. [In my freakin’ dreams.]It was a very good way to grow up. Innocent, American, uncluttered. You were around patriots and men with the best damn stories in the world.That was my America and I miss it.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

    1. gregorylent

      long gone, goaded by fear, we traded it for securityland of the surveilled, home of the fearful … play ball!

      1. JLM

        .There is nothing wrong with a shot of fear. Even a half pint.In the game of flight v fight, it is good to have a bit of fear for fuel.It is only when we fail to act on our fears that they are destructive.Fear = fuel. Start a fire and come into the light and warmth.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

          1. Vasudev Ram

            Agreed, though commenting a bit late.Reminds me of a passage from a Wilbur Smith novel – most were set in Africa, in previous centuries. Many involved the Courtney family over a few generations, who were ranchers, settlers, etc. there.So there is this scene when a young Courtney adult (Tom?) and Aboli, a worker, are watching, from hiding, a group of enemies, who may be nearing their land, to attack, let’s say. The enemies outnumber them.Tom: I feel fear, Aboli.Aboli: All men feel fear, young master. It is how they handle it that matters.(or words to that effect …)…

        1. pointsnfigures

          Athletics is an excellent way to break in.

        2. gregorylent

          institutionalized fear, as seen in usa, inevitably destroys the country

          1. JLM

            .Bullshit meter clanging here. Coming up: total bullshit.The fear created by the attack on Pearl Harbor galvanized the country and the miracle of post-war growth was the greatest growth spurt in the history of the US.We learned how to mass produce housing, a generation was educated by the GI Bill, everyone got a house, a car, a chicken.The fear of the Russians created by Sputnik drove us to put a man on the moon. This effort institutionalized the American technical advantage which shows up for a chat every day here at ultimately pushed the Russians over the cliff. Took some time but we won the Cold War.I could go on forever.One thing that is not going to happen is the destruction of the US. We will be called to action. We will act. We will prevail. We will adapt, innovate, prevail.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

    2. Chimpwithcans

      Travelled a fair bit myself growing up. Sport and music are the best ice-breakers I have found. If you can play guitar, run your ass off and swing a golf club, people will want you around more often than not. Also, Wheaton’s Law is very valuable.

  3. JimHirshfield

    Relationships are all we have in the end…at the end. Nothing gained making enemies unnecessarily. …I’d comment more, but I have decided to depart to spend more time with my family.

  4. JLM

    .Two practical comments.Every company should have a continuity plan. In the military, the CO (commanding officer) gets killed and the XO (executive officer, second in command) takes over. No sweat.This happens at lightning speed on a battlefield and the change is seamless. Even in peacetime, the CO walks in and says, “Got orders. Leaving tom’w. Good assignment. You’re in charge.”Has happened to me both ways — turned over command and received it. The military is ready and prepared for it.American business has to do the same thing.When I had 500+ employees, I always had a succession plan on a series of org charts. Same way I love dollar weighted org charts, I had succession charts. I wasn’t planning for people leaving, I was planning for folks getting run over by a car or hit by a meteorite.[OK, the meteorite thing was a little nuts. But, hey, you plan for stuff that isn’t too likely, also. Right?]At the top, when I was the CEO (and thought myself to be essential and irreplaceable), I got a present of hepatitis. I had just literally taken all of my executives to Jamaica to do that exact contingency planning (and to play a lot of golf).I came home, got sick, and the contingency plan kicked in seamlessly. I was out for 18 months and my vanity must say that the company operated at 95% of when I was running the show.I don’t know. Maybe it was better. Someone asked me, “Did you know you were going to get sick?”Good CEOs will have this stuff under control.It is easy. But like everything else in business, it takes some time to think through and to do.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

    1. LE

      Great story but let me give you another perspective on this that relates to a family business. I have told this before most likely.In the 70’s my Dad’s business consisted of himself, his brother (my uncle) as well as his nephew (my cousin) essentially as “management”. My Dad handled the business end (and the real estate) my uncle did the travel and purchasing overseas and his son (my cousin) was kind of a catch all guy. IBM selectric and Telex days days.Then my dad had a heart attack (back when that meant a long stay from work) but “luckily” (note the quotes) he had spent a great deal of time teaching his nephew every aspect of his job! A to Z! Because he liked and enjoyed doing so and I guess felt that would also have a business benefit which was obvious.So what happened? Well my uncle who knew nothing about what my Dad did previously (the joke was that he couldn’t even write a check and he spoke broken english while my Dad had learned english before he came to this country) saw that his son could run the business and do my Dad’s job! That was the beginning of the end for the partnership. And a few years later my Uncle insisted on splitting the business because he felt that he didn’t need my Dad as he could rely on his son and also needed the business to expand in order to provide for his son and other son’s families (which my Dad didn’t have to do). Really happened. The worst part was that my Dad decided to take 1/2 of the business and 1/2 of the real estate instead of none of the business and 100% of the real estate which ended up being worth way more than the business was. And of course to anyone who says “that would never happen in my family business or my company because..” or even “we have a partnership agreement” I would say wait until it actually happens to decide what people will or will not do when their self interest is on the line and how a legal agreement doesn’t protect against a partner’s psychological warefare.

      1. JLM

        .Good and insightful story.Family businesses are very different and very strange. A dollar in an argument in a family business plays like a ton of gold.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

        1. LE

          Well in theory it could play out in any business, right? You do a particular job and people think you are valuable. Then you are out and those around you (the board, management whatever) see that everything is ok. The FUD doesn’t exist. Hard to believe that doesn’t have some kind of an impact. It didn’t in your situation (for various reasons) but no question it can spell the beginning of the end for certain valued members when someone else is able to step up to the plate.Happens in other cases as well. A business has a fire or a flood and customers try a different vendor.Or someone is the “go to guy” for a particular type of work (contractor, consultant and so on) and he is away on vacation or not available so the people who need him try or get a quote from someone else and see they have another resource that they can tap.I know a guy who was a valued vendor back in the day who had a fire that wiped him out. By the time he rebuilt many of his customers had found (obviously) other sources and didn’t bat an eye at turning their backs on him.

  5. LIAD

    had to google ‘military brat’ to find, thankfully, it was a phrase of endearment.this is another of those posts which you find yourself nodding to whilst reading but incredibly hard to implement when it actually happens.when a core member leaves a startup, for whatever reason, it can feel akin to a boyfriend/girlfriend breakup. self esteem takes a knock, self doubt can creep in. need time to readjust etc.i guess this is just another time to utilise the challenge is opportunity mind frame.

  6. markslater

    Advice i got from my board last year as we were going through some significant changes.Don’t burn bridges, thake high road….first you never know when you will need them again (cap table) or your paths will cross, and second – shit people find their own shitpool – they don’t need help.This has played out exactly as taught.

  7. JLM

    .Be nice to everyone on the way up because you don’t know who you’re going to bump into on the way down.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

    1. fredwilson


    2. RichardF


    3. Rohan

      I’d think it is also super short term-ist to not be nice.. because it is very likely that this ex-employee will be a future customer, partner, or who knows, an employee as well.

    4. JamesHRH

      Who is the originator of that chestnut?I like Fred’s approach – people who leave & like you tell people.

  8. William Mougayar

    This post reminded me of a John Cage quote I like a lot.”I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.”

    1. Donna Brewington White

      The status quo has never been a friend of mine.

    2. jason wright

      Deepak Chopra comes to mind. about only fearing things already experienced and not things yet to be experienced. something along those lines. i forget the exact quote.

      1. Simone

        have you read Sam Harris – ‘Waking up’ is his latest book. He is a neuroscientist (addresses spirituality and philosophy too), has a few other areas of focus, what I do recommend is his writing on neuroscience, potentially more satisfying than DC. I thought you would appreciate a scientist

  9. Michael

    Back in 1999, Dale Dauten elaborated this as a corporate growth model in his book “The Gifted Boss”. It’s a nice read

  10. awaldstein

    Yup–I’ve made a bunch.Attacking this year with some new and different verve.

  11. Mike Zamansky

    So, I’m one of those guys that’s leaving (after 20+ years) and I think it’s going to be a healthy and positive split all around.I’m hoping to see things things evolve at my current school as a result. I’ve felt for a while that my team’s been ready to grow – create new courses and new opportunities and have in some ways been too deferential to me. Now, that won’t be an issue.It’ll also be healthy for the school to have new players step up to the CS Ed conversation in the school rather.Meanwhile, they’re gaining a new outside partner with me in my new position.The other day, I was able to tell one of my guys that the principal agreed with my suggestion to make him the new point man for CS in the school — I didn’t think telling him would leave me as happy as it did. I’ve helped plenty of kids get internships and jobs, but after I told JonAlf that he’s the guy, I was just really happy for the rest of the day.

    1. jason wright

      good luck.

    2. LE

      Mike – Where are you going and what will you be doing?

      1. Mike Zamansky

        Heading over to Hunter College. I’ll be developing their CS Teacher Ed program and also working with their regular CS undergrads starting by mentoring a new honors cohort.

    3. fredwilson

      What a great opportunity for Jon

      1. Mike Zamansky

        He’s got so much talent and potential — I’m hoping he’s put in a position where he can really do his thing and shine.

  12. Susan Rubinsky

    A very buddhist approach!

  13. Dorian Benkoil

    Fred, very timely and thank you. A colleague is indeed leaving end of this month, and while I will have to find ways to replace her contributions, I hope she will be, to use your word, an ambassador.

  14. Tom Labus

    People want to move around and out even in a great work environment, it’s human nature. Capture the restlessness while it’s with you. It should be the dame for founders too. Sometimes they’re stuck

  15. Robbie Zettler

    If handled in the right way, change can be positive for everyone. Maybe it’s a new advocate for your company in another organization. Maybe it’s giving someone a chance to shine in yours. Change is always what you make of it…. doesn’t have to be negative

  16. johnboehmer

    And prepare for it. NSR-Never Stop Recruiting. Create a bench of candidates you can go to. Interviewing candidates can create other business opportunitites as well.

    1. rich caccappolo

      Great point – always be in the market for talent

    2. fredwilson


  17. pointsnfigures

    Consulting companies like Bain are well skilled in the use of ex-employees. It’s rare when they take The Godfather approach. There is a network of ex-Bain, ex-Anderson, ex-Deloitte people that continually bring their old firms new business. In some cases, they encourage and help you join their ex ante army.I agree, startups should take a similar vision unless the employee did something horribly wrong to damage the startup.On the other hand, there are investors that it’s smart to take The Godfather approach with. They screw up companies rather than help them-and sometimes you don’t know until you have worked with them.

  18. Chimpwithcans

    We have an approach in our company which is working well – it sort of builds on USV’s ‘investing in networks’ thesis – When you assume one day all new hires are relatively free to roam, treating them as a “network” of employees is useful. Some are obviously more closely knit into the network when they are working at your company, but even when they move on they are still part of the network – still ‘of use’ and still a functioning investment which you have long ago made as a CEO, and which can reap rewards for you. Long live networks.

  19. JW

    Thank you for this, Fred. Found it to be applicable to many different situations and relationships in my life… especially those outside of the office. Cheers!

  20. rich caccappolo

    Great topic and appreciate you bringing it up, as always. I’ve found that it’s also the time of year when people who are unhappy or unfulfilled actively look to make a change – sort of a New Year’s resolution thing of “I’m going to change jobs this year” – and begin their search with some focus. So, as a manager, if you want to retain them, now is the time to clearly express the company strategy, the mission, and how their activities, efforts, and performance tie to the achievement of those goals. Of course, managers should always be communicating this information, but I find it’s even more critical to “over communicate” at this time of year.

  21. mattb2518

    This is one of your best posts, Fred, not to mention that it quotes my favorite song of all time. Startups and growth companies need to learn how to love change, not fear it.

  22. Dana Hoffer

    When someone makes a change it is almost always the right thing.For the portfolio company:- The leaver feels they can be more successful elsewhere.- The leaver concluded that they could no longer make a positive contribution to get to next.- The leaver likely reached this conclusion months and months ago… the leaver is no longer and hasn’t been 110+% focused on doing his/her job for the company and someone else should be hired to give the company what it needs.For the leaver:- The leaver should be applauded for recognizing some situations cannot work out and that they need to take matters into their hands.- The leaver should be applauded for not checking out but staying in place and being a “sub performer”.- The leaver should be supported by all as we would want the same thing ourselves when we make the call to change. (The Golden Rule)The key is that it is not a slight on the Portfolio Company if someone leaves. A cognizant CEO should know this is a) going to happen and b) know it is happening well before the point in time that the change is announced.Changing is about the quest to getting it perfect (a never-ending quest). It isn’t a grade. It is a stripe. And it is the only way to make progress on the quest.

  23. iggyfanlo

    Love the post… reminded me of 2 sayings that I enjoy1. The biggest risk is not taking any risk2. The world is a merry-go-round, not a parade; you’ll see everyone again

  24. Semil Shah

    Have you ever written about how moving around as an army brat kid influenced (in any way?) your interest in finding and participating in online communities?

  25. LE

    I grew up an army brat. Every spring my dad would come home from work and tell us where we were moving to that summer. I didn’t know that people lived any other way. Each fall I’d find myself in a new school, facing the strange.Shows how resilient kids are actually. A sharp contrast to today (non military) where parents often refuse to move their kids to a new neighborhood (even in the same area) because they won’t have the same group of friends. (Happens in divorce families for example..)

  26. Donna Brewington White

    “change is the only constant” pretty much describes working with startups.And yet… As a recruiter in the startup world, so often the reason I get calls from people wanting to know what opportunities are out there, or they respond to my outreach, is due to a change that’s occurred in their company.Change is the way of life in a startup but how it is acknowledged and managed can make a huge difference in terms of its impact and whether the change is maximized as a positive or negative.In those conversations referenced above (with a prospective candidate) I pay close attention to how they react or respond to change. How are they managing themselves in the midst of whatever change they are experiencing? What difference are they making to the situation? How resilient? But often they have a valid concern since the way change is managed can show a lot about how the company is being led.I recently wrote a blog post that talks about how startup CEOs make it easier to recruit away their people — much of it has to do with how they lead. Although I did say something to the effect of “you don’t have to worry about me recruiting your whiners.”

  27. BillMcNeely

    I was fired from a defense contractor the week that Fanny and Freddy went in the toilet in 2008.I applied for a job and little did I know that the guy hiring was client of mine 2 years ago previous and fast tracked my hire right before I ran out of money .

  28. jason wright

    great minds think alike, or just breakfast talk?

  29. PhilipSugar

    The biggest thing I have always mandated is that we will not speak badly about those that left us. That is a natural tendency. But if you say we never do that unless the person is present and you want to say it in front of them it really kills gossip and politics, and you have to mean that even for those that have left.A person has to do what they have to do which is best for them. Sometimes that matches up with the company and sometimes it doesn’t.I’m not saying that you can leave and are always welcome back, no probably not.

  30. Ovidiu Schiopu

    Well said Fred – Chapeau !!!

  31. Ronnie Rendel

    I like Fred’s approach to change. So many people working in corporate America would consider it literally the end of the work if anything substantial changes (not to mention a change in the market…)

  32. aseoconnor

    I love the Taleb quote, “The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.”I think there is something great about shaking up your routine and putting yourself in front of new obstacles. The new year is a great time to do it as well.

  33. JJ Donovan

    I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work at a Palo Alto software company. How they treated us at the firm was amazing and how they treat us when we are departing is amazing. You are called “Alumni” when you leave. Your internal Social Media site is merely replaced with the word “Alumni” instead of your photo, but your posts remain. I loved that company and they know that the world is connected through their Alumni.

  34. Keenan

    This is absolutley killer advice. Change happens, it’s inevitable, dictate change don’t be dictated by it, is the key to success. Resisting change is a death sentence, accepting change is OK, but it’s creating change is where the win is. “Make it work for you.” That’s creating change. I love this post.

  35. Douglas Crets

    Just heard the Powerball winning lottery ticket was bought in California. Was that you, Fred?

  36. neversummerpb

    Something to be said for the four seasons of the year, as farmers have taught us. Same goes for a business…….new seasons, new people, new ideas, new growth