Hello there, here’s some advice on how NOT to fire people

Microsoft executive Stephen Elop’s 1,100-word memo, which casually mentions massive job cuts, is a case study in how not to write and how not to lead a business

Rather than dish out the bad news directly, the executive vice-president takes refuge behind a curious subjunctive: “We plan that this would result in an estimated reduction of 12,500 . . . employees.”

Rather than dish out the bad news directly, the executive vice-president takes refuge behind a curious subjunctive: “We plan that this would result in an estimated reduction of 12,500 . . . employees.”

Mon, Jul 28, 2014, 01:00

Barely 10 days old, Stephen Elop’s “Hello there” memo has already become a classic example of how not to fire people. It is a 1,110-word document stiff with “appropriate financial envelopes”, “ramp-downs” and “ecosystems” which, towards the end, casually mentions that thousands of Microsoft jobs are to go. Rather than dish out the bad news directly, the executive vice-president takes refuge behind a curious subjunctive: “We plan that this would result in an estimated reduction of 12,500 . . . employees.”

Yet to focus on Elop’s tin ear misses something. This memo deserves to become a set text for all executives interested in communication. It adds value by showcasing the delivery of business piffle that is perfectly aligned with current high-end management guff. It is a case study in how not to write, how not to think, and how not to lead a business.

The only trouble with the text is that it is almost impossible to read. It took me several attempts to get to the end but, having now made it, I feel I ought to perform the public service of passing on eight golden rules that occurred to me while slogging my way through.

Rule 1:

Never be chatty unless you are a chatty sort of person. “Hello there” is fine from a grandparent trying to jolly along a five-year-old. It is less good spoken by a corporate leader to his ranks, especially when the jocularity begins and ends there.

Rule 2:

Using clear words is nearly always a good idea – except when you don’t have anything clear to say.

The memo begins: “Microsoft’s strategy is focused on productivity and our desire to help people ‘do more’.”

This is attractively simple (if you ignore the baffling inverted commas), but is less attractively stupid. Do more what? There are things I’d like to do more of, like sleep, and other things I’d like to do less of, like nagging my children.

Rule 3:

The word “align” serves as a warning that the sentence in which it appears is a dud. Elop performs no fewer than six acts of alignment in this memo, each more heroic than the last. In none of them is it clear exactly what he is lining up, nor why it matters that such things should be in a line at all.

“To align with Microsoft’s strategy, we plan to focus our efforts,” he starts with unhelpful circularity. He assures us that there will be a lot more aligning: “We will focus on delivering great breakthrough products in alignment with major milestones ahead”, thus craftily slipping in five other weasel words. In rising order of obnoxiousness, these are: focus, major, milestone, breakthrough and delivering.

But it is only with Elop’s final act of alignment that we see the point of it. “As difficult as some of our changes are today, this direction deliberately aligns our work with the cross-company efforts that Satya has described in his recent emails.”

In other words, don’t blame him. Blame Microsoft’s chief executive, Satya Nadella, or, better still, blame the need for arranging things in lines.

Rule 4:

When things are cheap or expensive, say so. Don’t bang on about the “affordable smartphone space” and “high-end” devices. This fools no one.

Rule 5:

Avoid the word “experience”. Not only is it the most fashionable of all management buzz words, it is misleading. An experience is something that leaves an impression on you; everyday activities ought to do no such thing, or we would all be exhausted within minutes of waking up. Using your phone, except perhaps when it’s brand new, should not be an experience. I do not want the “device experiences” or even less the “digital life experiences” that Elop is trying to “showcase” to his customers.

Rule 6:

The more often an executive uses the word “strategy”, the more you fear he lacks a good one. To use it once is just about acceptable. To use it seven times, as Elop does, is very worrying indeed.

Rule 7:

Never use a trinity of abstract nouns. It shows you know what you are saying is inadequate.

“Collectively,” the memo ends, “the clarity, focus and alignment across the company, and the opportunity to deliver the results of that work into the hands of people, will allow us to increase our success in the future. Regards, Stephen.”

It won’t, Stephen. Collectively, a trinity of almost identical, empty mass nouns and the opportunity to deliver something that is not specified is not going to increase anything. Except possibly the dismay, disdain and distrust of the people who work for you.

And just as a bonus, here is rule number eight. Don’t end a memo with “regards”.

– (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014)

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