Reopening "The Diary Of A Shutdown"
Looking Back at Valuable Lessons Learned
Since the Doors Closed
It has been one year since we shared the last
excerpt of Elizabeth Hill’s diary with you. Her
diary revealed her deeply personal and innermost
feelings while experiencing the shutdown of a company
she gave 12 years of her life to.
Elizabeth Hill is not her real name, but
her story is real in its authenticity and its
expression of what happens when an organization
amputates itself. Elizabeth faced a challenge many of
our readers have faced and may have to face in this
unstable economy. She has experienced the hardships
work life can cast upon you, yet she still believes in
Here she shares with us the lessons
learned over the past year, how she is, yet again,
facing a similar challenge and offers hope to
those—organization or individuals—consumed
by comparable ordeals.
Why I Stuck Around
At first I stayed just because I was angry. And now, I
think I also stayed for my own benefit. This was a job
where I was clearly needed and where my skills and
abilities were tested everyday. On some level I wanted
a work experience that was meaningful and intense.
There is a closeness that only comes from tragedy and I
wanted to be a part of that. I wasn’t doing it
for any type of approval from upper management and I
certainly wasn’t doing it because I was aligned
with the corporation. It seems like I didn’t stay
in spite of, but because of, the shutdown. Just being
there was a very energizing experience.
I learned to stay honest and authentic in
the face of daily difficulties. Every day there was a
new problem or crisis none of us anticipated. We tried
to get ahead a little bit, but never really could.
There was always a new curve coming and it gave me the
opportunity to develop my leadership skills in ways I
The most difficult stress to manage was the tension
with upper management, which steadily increased
throughout the shutdown. Disagreements between us grew
so fundamental that I began to question my decision to
stay, as well as my abilities. It seemed like a gulf
opened up between us that I couldn’t find a way
to bridge and that was very frustrating.
As I went through the year I would try to
think, “What picture would I use to describe
this?” Death was the prevailing image, and we all
fell sick in different ways. Some people would go
quickly—they would get a new job and they would
be gone. Some people fell apart and some never gave up.
All of the personal loss and sorrow was magnified by
the death of the whole facility and the work we had
done there together.
A Freeing Experience
I noticed that we use work to make meaning. No matter
what we say, work is important to us for its own sake.
We use it to search and look and decide and define us.
For some people it was a very freeing experience of
finally talking about, “I’ve been at this
job for 20 years, now what do I really want to do?
“What do I dream for?” It was inspiring to
be around people who were talking about their dreams
and hopes for their lives. Of course some people
demonstrated the importance through the incredible
grief and bitterness they felt. No matter how much we
pretend it isn’t, work is deeply important to us.
It is a collective and individual sacrament of
There is a natural response during a shutdown to hold
back on a lot of levels. There is a reflex to cut the
budget, become stingy with your time and energy and
limit information. I think that’s either because
of grief or maybe it’s just because we’re
trying to control some little piece that is left.
However, the first lesson I learned is
that the only way to effectively lead through this
situation is to fling the doors wide open. This goes
against personal and corporate instincts, but it is the
only way to survive. Forget everything you learned
about management and go overboard. For example,
don’t let the HR department leave. Instead, bring
more people in to help answer questions about
retirement and insurance. Conduct job fairs, resume
workshops and interview classes. Bring in experts on
stress and violence. Give away donuts on Mondays and
pizza on Fridays. Have more meetings, open-office
hours, flextime and a complaint hot line.
These ideas address a very practical
aspect of the shutdown. Everyone is worrying about some
aspect of their future, so if resources are available
at work to help address these concerns, that reduces
the time spent on task and the energy spent on anxiety.
It doesn’t make everything okay, but it increases
your chances of survival.
The second lesson involves the thought
process of the leader. It has to shift away from any
thoughts of the future and define everything as
temporary. Nothing is ongoing—everything is
ad-hoc. There is no system now, only separate pieces of
departments and work. Don’t think
‘schedule,’ think ‘countdown’
and design all of your conversations accordingly. The
question is not ‘What do I do?,’ but
‘What do I have left?’
The Questions of Loyalty
Loyalty is usually discussed in terms of
‘employee loyalty’ and is never mentioned
when a company is doing well.
I am going through the same process at my
new job—we are up for sale (they say ‘on
the block’) and then large portions of this
facility will be shut down. As I hear all the shutdown
horror stories, the patterns are the same. We are still
in shock and some are in grief and denial. The
conversations are familiar—the disclosure, the
intensity and the emotion. It makes me wonder if
loyalty ever really existed.
Triumph Through Tragedy
Many doors have opened for me since going through this
experience. The opportunity for me to share my story
was wonderful. I’m working on a book and talking
to publishers. I have a good job in a good place with
people I care about. My family is healthy and happy. I
wouldn’t do anything differently.
June 2001 News for
a Change Homepage