The Pain of Virtual Leadership

We all talk a big game.  It’s what we do when the chips are down that shows the kind of leader we are.

In case you missed it, today fed us an interesting anecdote in the world of fast growing companies.

Lauded startup Zirtual, a darling of the flexible work scene, announced that it was “pausing operations” in a terse and terminally unfunny email from founder and CEO Maren Kate Donovan delivered to customers just after 6am ET today.

“I realize this news comes incredibly fast and I am truly sorry for the Z-shaped hole this will leave in your lives and business.”

The Z-shaped hole?

Yes, that was in the letter to customers.

Now, the impact on customers of a sudden and absolutely unforeseen shutdown of a key administrative service is tough.  But, what about the impact on the more than 400 employees Zirtual had?  Of course, they knew.  Right?

Wrong.  Zirtual’s assistants found out by being locked out of their email accounts.

Yes, that’s right, the company folded and didn’t tell its employees until afterward.

So what?  Right?  Happens all the time.

Well… Sorta.   This one comes with a lesson.

It’s a lesson called: Don’t let your mouth write checks your character won’t cash.

To wit:  just 21 days ago, erstwhile Zirtual CEO Maren Kate Donovan wrote an article titled “How to Manage Chaos during a Company Shakeup” in Fortune.  Here’s your link.   It’s juicy with “you gotta be kidding me” quotes.   Such as:

“My team is without a doubt my biggest asset, which is something I never take for granted. So it’s vital to keep them in the loop during periods of change and consistently show support. Because what my employees don’t know could ultimately hurt the entire business. The sooner your team knows about upcoming shifts in the companythe better.”

Yeah.  She wrote that.

And…In a section titled “Don’t worry about your image” she drops this whopper:

“Oftentimes being honest about your own uncertainties in tough times relays a stronger message than being stern.”

Now, thanks to an early career stint at a venture-lending operation, I’ve witnessed the pain of a company shutdown in a few (perhaps half a dozen) instances and actually liquidated one. I understand the pain. I do not write this to stomp on a company that obviously has just imploded for some as-yet-to-be determined reason.

I write it because of one reality:  We all talk big.  Some people with big platforms and bullhorns talk the loudest.  They talk the loudest about being “reassuring” and being “vulnerable.”

We all talk big.

But, when the chips are down, all the big talk is useless.  It’s how you act when you are in the worst of circumstances that defines your (and my) character.

In good times, it’s easy to write for Fortune about your warm fuzzy leadership style.  Rarely is such commentary revealed to be hooey so quickly as in the Zirtual case.

Maren Kate Donovan doubtless has had a bad few days lately.  And, I’m sure there will be more written about Zirtual over the coming weeks as the facts of a 400+ employee company abruptly imploding comes to light.

Still, it’s a case study in failed communication; and a case study in faux leadership.


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