Coach and mentor Nancy Gillespie on layoffs, leaders and corporate culture 

I first met Nancy Gillespie while on a walk through a white-collar warehouse known as Vacation Plaza. The vast space on the north side of Indianapolis, once known as the Mayflower Building, had been transformed into an office and call center by a timeshare exchange company.

At the end of a long corridor, white light poured through emergency doors and bounced off sunshine-colored walls. I headed toward the light, took a left, and discovered something startling: A Plexiglass wall, and beyond it what looked like a grade-school library. In this library, office workers, not schoolchildren, wore big black earphones and fidgeted in media kiosks. Women in heels stood in line to check out books and boxed cassettes. Behind the counter: Nancy—a petite fortysomething woman with a chestnut bob, quick blue eyes and a low-but-confident voice.

It was a voice I needed to hear. I was a couple of years into my job as editor of a business magazine for the resort industry, the leader of a team of writers and editors. I’d gotten by for a few years on my journalistic experience, but this was the corporate world, and the busiest time of my life. I’d recently given birth to my second child, and I was juggling work, nursing (and pumping), two tiny kids, a husband, a house and a long commute. I was so physically depleted, a few of my teeth fell out. And my hundred-dollar haircut couldn’t hide how frayed I felt.

Full-throttle provider mode—that’s how I rolled back then. I rolled right over anyone who got in my way. I rolled over myself and my own needs, too. And the road kept changing. One exasperating winter day, I went for a walk. And I discovered the library, and Nancy. Under her tutelage, I zipped through business self-help books both corny and transformative: The One-Minute Manager. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Getting to Yes. Somehow, perhaps thanks to Nancy, I kept standing, even though a year later, my boss recommended coaching.

When Nancy became my coach, she helped me fill up a satchel of office survival skills, starting with this: Outspokenness is not an effective behavior for a corporate middle manager. I learned how to be quiet and patient, to practice office Aikido, stepping out of the way when attacked. Nancy shared a philosophy rooted in kindness and practicality that I’ve called upon throughout my career: Assume good intentions. Set clear expectations. Just listen. When I saw my weaknesses clearly for the first time, I started learning what it really meant to be a leader. 

Since those days at Vacation Plaza, Nancy and I have both bounced around to different jobs. To my delight, we met again a few years ago at another corporation. We’ve stayed in touch, even though I continue to bounce as a freelancer, and an illness forced Nancy to retire early. I asked Nancy to share a bit of her wisdom in this Q&A. —Alyssa Chase

How did you come to do the work you do?
I started out running a resource center. In the beginning, it was just three shelves. Across the hall from me, a colleague named Myron was doing career coaching. My boss asked me what I saw as my next step, and I said, “I’ve taken this resource center as far as it can go. I’d like to do what Myron’s doing.” So they sent me to coaching courses.

What kind of coaching did you do?
It was internal career coaching. Sometimes it was my job to coach people out of the organization. People who were struggling in the call center would sometimes come to me for career advice. I’d ask them about their passion, and often they talked about doing something different. If they decided to leave, it saved the company a lot of money and them a lot of pain.

I also saw people leave when they couldn’t be successful due to policies or constraints. If they couldn’t do their job well, they’d leave. Good people want to do a good job and feel like they’re contributing. If they can’t do that in one place, they’ll look for another place where they can. It makes me sad to see good people go. But if you’re trying to win but you can’t win, why would you want to play that game anymore?

What coaching accomplishments mean the most to you?
Not long ago, I got a call from a man I had coached. He was a young man from Africa who had come in for career coaching. He eventually left the company, and now he’s the vice president of a bank. He called me to thank me. He said, “You encouraged me. You didn’t know the impact you had on me.”

I also feel good about bringing new ideas to organizations. I brought Crucial Conversations to one corporation. That has had some impact.

I’ve enjoyed working with people and helping them to be better leaders. A lot of times, leaders aren’t thinking about people as a resource they need to execute their strategies. They have strategies, but do they have the right people? Do they need more? Less? How can they develop the people they have?

I’ve heard you talk about lazy leadership. What does it mean to you?
It’s what happens when leaders aren’t willing to invest in their people. There’s an assumption that people can’t adapt, and lazy leaders don’t want to bother developing them.

Lazy leadership is expensive. Do you know how much money it takes to hire? Especially for director level and above. Every time there’s a transition, there’s an economic impact to the organization. It’s hidden in HR, so I don’t think leaders always see what a big economic impact there is.

Often, you spend more for someone who is an unknown quantity. And a year later, they still may not be getting the results you want. And that may have nothing to do with who you hired. Sometimes there’s an underlying problem that hasn’t been addressed.

Tell me more about the impact on hiring.
Leaders need to be self-aware and people-aware. You can’t use a lot of personality testing in hiring decisions. It’s not legal. Sometimes employee referrals are the best—someone who has worked with you before. Or promoting from within. People should ask their leaders how they can add more value. A lot of leaders appreciate it when people take initiative. It’s hard to hire for that.

What are your thoughts on transitions, also known as layoffs?
Some people use them as a silver bullet. But from all the research I’ve ever read—plus my experience working for public, private and mutual companies—there isn’t usually a positive, long-term benefit from layoffs. It’s a short-term fix. At the public company where I worked, every October there were layoffs. I also worked for a mutual company  that didn’t have to answer to the market, so layoffs were not always financially driven.

Sometimes, even if it a layoff is for financial reasons, there’s still an element of who is going to stay or go. People who were underperforming, not getting along with people or not adding enough value don’t always make the cut. When people are not a good fit for the culture, they should leave.

In some cases there’s nothing you can do about layoffs. The powers that be make a decision, and it doesn’t matter what your performance has been and what you contribute. Sometimes those decisions are made in a vacuum without a lot of information. Perceptions shift. One day you’re in, the next day you’re out. Like Project Runway.

How has the culture of layoffs changed our society?
We’re not talking about our father’s Buick anymore. At one time there was loyalty to an employee and a company. Now you have to be the CEO of your own company, so to speak.

Can there be a win-win for people and companies?
If the leader is doing a good job of coaching and being honest about an employee’s performance, it can be a win-win. I have seen leaders work with someone who wasn’t meeting expectations and give them some pretty direct and honest feedback. As in: Here’s what you need to do going forward in order to be successful. It really depends on the leaders—whether they’re willing to invest. If you try, and they can’t change, then it’s time to part ways. It’s great if you can give people enough notice so they can be looking and make the transition on their own.

Smell a layoff? Here are five ways to be ready.

Be Merry and Wise
This is the first in a series of blogs about life and work. My hope is that, as it begins to unfold, this series might inspire reflection or conversation. When you’re in the middle of a life, it can be tricky to see where you are and where you’ll go.—
Alyssa Chase




Image from Nastuh Abootalebi, Unsplash