Personal Leadership: My Thoughts and Actions in the first 48 Hours after Getting RIFed, for the First Time

Note: In September 2016, I was caught in a company-wide reduction in force (RIF), my first such experience in life. There will be many bigger challenges in life ahead, but I wanted to document this one so that years later, I could look back and relive how I felt and reacted. To people managing career challenges now or in the future, I hope this at least provides some useful food for thought.

The hunch — my last day in the office

Sitting in a small dimly lit conference room, I turned to my colleague in the mid of our brainstorming session for a new project and said:“ Gil, I think today might be my last day at the firm.” Gil: “No, I certainly hope not, that would have been a terrible mistake, you are an asset to the firm IMO. At least to me, you have been incredibly helpful…”

Flashing back to the day prior, there had been an email from the CEO announcing an imminent round of RIF. With the 10-year treasury rate hovering around historical lows, and negative yields becoming the norm in Japan and Europe, the persistently low-interest-rate environment has created immense pressure on the spread-based businesses of financial services firms.

As soon as the announcement was made, I had the hunch that I was at risk by noticing several clues – a rescheduled bi-monthly meeting with my manager later in the afternoon and an all-hands meeting for our group immediately afterward. Notwithstanding the ominous feeling, I finished planning for the project with Gil assuming it was a go.

Unfortunately two hours later, my hunch turned out to be right. Instead of meeting in my manager’s office we always had, I was accompanied to a conference room with an HR rep, handed and walked through a separation agreement/process (with much respect from my manager and the HR rep in the process), and within 30 mins was out of the office, without saying goodbye to my colleagues.

For the first time in my life, I had got caught in RIF. I would like to use this blog to quickly document how I felt and what I did within the first 48 hours before the feelings and memories dissipate…and they sure will.

The moment — being told your position was eliminated

While I already had the preconception…it was still a tough spot sitting through a meeting being told your position was eliminated.

I was by and large composed and non-emotional (at least trying to), but with my arms resting on the table in front of me, I could feel them trembling a bit…my body was naturally reacting to the unknown ahead, and my brain was on auto-pilot, simultaneously trying to digest the fact that I would not come to the office the next morning, going through and making sense of all the ramifications of this event, and trying to actively listen to the HR rep.

Auto-pilot thinking in my head: “tomorrow I will be without a job…do not have to come to the office in the morning…how long will my finance last…who do I tell first…what do I do first”

HR rep: “the total severance is…you will need to sign this no earlier than…send this in no later than…if you have any questions…here is the number…the outplacement service is included, but you must…” (Results of switching back and forth from auto-pilot thinking to active listening…)

I was in a state of mental chaos…

The principles — regaining a sense of direction

“All successful people operate by principles that help them be successful. Without principles, you would be forced to react to circumstances that come at you without considering what you value most and how to make choices to get what you want. This would prevent you from making the most of your life” – by Ray Dalio, Founder of Bridgewater Associates

Those are the words of Ray Dalio, Founder of Bridgewater Associates, in explaining the importance of principles in his manifesto “Principles”, which I had read late last year.

Walking out of the office into the sunny afternoon, I breathed a sigh of relief…it was hard to regain my footing in the office. To move ahead you need to leave things behind and not turn back. Being alone, I was able to start channeling all my mental energy inward instead of reacting to external stimulus.

What are the principles that I have learned/internalized through my past failures and from other people that are powerful enough to guide me at this moment? How do I make sense of all these…

1. The universe owes me nothing

2. There is no time for self-pity

Those were two of the principles that I had internalized from a past failure, where feelings of being victimized and self-pity clogged my rationality, blocked me from moving forward and made me a miserable and unpleasant person to be around…I do not ever want to see myself in that state again. As soon as these two ideas were activated, my mind began to stop thinking about what had just happened and shifted to thinking about what’s next. Here two more ideas came off the memory shelf, the first one from a blog post that I wrote in 2015:

“People are sub-optimally risk averse by nature, but life is more healing than you think. There will be a time in your career that some unusual opportunities arise, think carefully but trust your instincts, take calculated risks. If you conduct yourself with great integrity for life and maintain close relationship with people who know you, you can afford to tolerate more risk than you think. Even if you fail, with integrity, being hardworking, and being smart, there will be people willing to work with you.” – by Paul Hilal, Columbia Business School Alum

This is a beautiful quote by Paul Hilal (former partner of Bill Ackman at Pershing Square) from his lecture at Columbia Business School. It is a powerful idea that runs counter-intuitive to how people normally function, but it is just the right dose of medicine for me in my situation.

“Life is more healing than you think…people are sub-optimally risk averse by nature…”

I kept replaying those two lines in my head. What runs opposite of these truths? How do I make myself more miserable? It would be panicking right now, scrambling to blast my resume out tomorrow at any opportunities in sight, and not taking the time to think through my decisions and not taking enough calculated risk when the opportunity to do so arises…

As Charlie Munger likes to say:

“Think forwards and backwards — invert, always invert.”

Knowing how to make my situation worse pushed me to go the other direction. Maybe this is a blessing in disguise, maybe I should treat this as an opportunity to reconfigure my career direction, and maybe now is a good time to move…to China…yes, yes, yes…there is nothing stopping me from exploring these possibilities other than my own negative thoughts. With this line of thinking, a ray of optimism emerged through my mind cloud, not the type of blind optimism (not aware of the unknown unknowns), but the type based on rational thinking and wrestling with the reality facing me. Furthermore, I took solace in that:

“Even if you fail, with integrity, being hardworking, and being smart, there will be people willing to work with you…”

Failures I have had many in life. One solace that I took was at least I have not stopped trying to learn and grow, in particular since leaving Columbia Business School. My time at Columbia took me to 12 countries in 2 years (including two wonderful social enterprise projects in Kenya and Fiji Islands, which were documented on my blog). During this time, I also met the founder of my second start-up adventure (Li Jia at nonda.co), from whom I learned much about how to properly launch a company. Furthermore, I made an effort to grab a cup of coffee every day with a fellow classmate during the 2nd year at Columbia. These experiences helped set me on a course to continue seeking new wisdom, perspectives, meaningful life experiences and human connections on my own, long after leaving a platform like Columbia. Since rejoining the corporate world, in fear of becoming myopic again, I have continued investing much of my free time reading, learning new skills, and networking/helping other people (in the process abiding by my principle of “give and earn”). Though still work in progress, I do have a network of friends in the start-up, technology, and investing community that I could activate. If anything, at least I was much better equipped emotionally, intellectually, and relationship-wise to cope with my current predicament vs. a year ago.

“If you are not at a good spot, focus on the progress you could make every day”  – by Bill Ackman, Founder of Pershing Square Capital

Notes: from Bill Ackman’s talk at Columbia Business School after Valeant stock lost 90% of its value. His Valeant investment was filled with media drama and controversies. I am not here to sing praise or make any judgment. I simply like borrowing other people’s ideas when I think they are helpful to me.

So instead of worrying about whether I will still be out on the street or where I will be in two months, the first step is to focus on what I need to do immediately, start attacking the challenges one block (week) at a time, and at the same time, take a step back and think about the big picture.

This sequence of rapid-fire thinking on the train from the Grand Central Station to Williamsburg Brooklyn helped remove some of the cloud hanging over my head. To the least, they got me comfortable with the unknowns ahead.

After getting home, I took my soccer ball and went to McCarren Park for my weekly solo soccer practice. If I was still the same me three hours ago, then I shouldn’t behave any differently — I value health and mental clarity.

The grit — not afraid of crying for help and getting back to working on the future

Two hours later, returning from the soccer practice with my body exhausted and mind cleared, I sat down and started listing out all the people that I would like to inform, writing down my to-dos for the next few days, and began to text some close friends about my status change and next steps. During this time, several text messages came from former colleagues who learned of my lay-off at the group all-hands meeting. Later on, messages also started pouring in from friends around the world — New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Australia, India, Hong Kong, and Mainland China. Some were surprised and some were disappointed by what has befallen, but all were overwhelmingly supportive. I felt a great sense of gratitude and even better about the situation…

It is good to be strong and independent, but it is also nice to have friends. When things get tough, we could all use some help. — By yours truly

Recollecting my thoughts the day after, I decided that before getting back to working on the future, I needed to put a colure to the past – bidding farewell to my former colleagues. After much time thinking about how I would like myself to be remembered by them, the email below came about. Sitting there reflecting on my past year at the firm, proof -reading the email for an hour, I finally pushed the SEND button. Now, I am ready to move on to tackling the future!

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

From: Zong Zhong Peng

Sent: September xx, 2016

To: CS&D Team

Title: Staying in Touch

Dear CS&D friends (Note: Corporate Strategy & Development),

Thank you very much for your messages, the outpouring of good will and support from you and the broader network in the first 24 hours has been overwhelming. True friendships blossom in storms, and I am very grateful that I have accumulated many in the calmer days. Notwithstanding the news, it has been a real pleasure working with and getting to know you during my time at TIAA. Here I have met some of the kindest and most nurturing people that I have come across in my career. From everyone on the team, I have observed and picked up many admirable personal and professional qualities, which I will try to carry forward with me.

I certainly do not feel that I left empty-handed. In a short year, I have had the fortune to work on projects across asset management, institutional retirement, retail financial services, and saw a transformative acquisition came to fruition from a relatively close distance. If anything, besides taking personal responsibility, I blame the central bankers for what has befallen :). In case you are curious of my plan going forward, one side of me sees this as an opportunity to reconfigure my career and I cannot wait to embark on the next adventure. To set me in motion, quotes from two investors who have lost $1 Billion in the past year are helpful in guiding my thoughts and actions:

“Life is more healing than you think, and even if you fail, with integrity, being hardworking, and being smart, there will be people willing to work with you”

“If you are not at a good spot, focus on the progress you could make every day”

So my immediate next steps are:

  1. Inform the broader network of my status change
  2. Update my resume and get in touch with HHs (note: in a later email moved to #4 and changed to “Update my resume but wait until I have clarity before spraying it around)
  3. Continue helping people wherever I could. Been serving as an advisor to several start-ups at an accelerator in NYC (note: in a later email re-ordered to #2)
  4. In the few weeks ahead, reflect on and crystallize the direction I would like to take my life toward (note: in a later email re-ordered to #3)

Thank you again for the great experience in the past year. Needless to say, I very much look forward to staying in touch with everyone and continuing to grow our friendships, and I am sure everyone will emerge through this tough time better and stronger. In the meanwhile, please do not hesitate to reach out if I could be of any service. I am only one message away :).

My personal contacts are:

Cheers!

Zong

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