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Rebounding from career setbacks

by MITCHELL LEE MARKS, PHILIP MIRVIS AND RON ASHKENAS

December 28, 2014 | 1:46 pm
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Brian was a rising star at his company. He advanced through several senior management roles and was soon tapped to head a business unit, reporting directly to the CEO. But after about two years in the job, despite his stellar financial results, his boss dismissed him. Brian was told that the company was trying to be a more open, engaged, global enterprise and that his aggressive leadership style didn’t reflect those values.
Like most ambitious managers who suffer career setbacks, Brian went through a period of shock, denial and self-doubt. After all, he’d never previously failed in a position. He had trouble accepting the reality that he wasn’t as good as he’d thought he was. He also felt upset that his boss hadn’t given him a chance to prove himself. Eventually, however, he recognized that he couldn’t reverse the decision and chose to focus on moving forward. None of the people working for him had objected to his dismissal, so he was keen to figure out how to foster loyalty in future employees.
Within a few months, a large industrial parts company recruited Brian to lead a division. The job was a step down from his previous role, but he took it so that he could experiment with different ways of working and leading, learning to better control his emotions and rally his team around him. It paid off: Less than three years later, a Fortune 500 manufacturer hired him to be its CEO. During his seven-year tenure in that job, he doubled the firm’s revenue and created a culture that balanced innovation with a disciplined focus on productivity and performance.
Of course, not everyone can go from being out of a job to running a large company. But in more than 30 years of research and consulting work with executive clients, we’ve found that even a dramatic career failure can become a springboard to success if you respond in the right way. To execute a turnaround like Brian’s, focus on a few key tasks: Determine why you lost, identify new paths and seize the right opportunity when it’s within your reach.
FIGURE OUT WHY YOU LOST
We’ve interviewed hundreds of executives who have been fired, laid off or passed over for promotion. Often, we find them working through the classic stages of loss defined by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: They start with shock and denial about the events and move on to anger at the company or the boss, bargaining over their fate, and then a protracted period of licking their wounds and asking themselves whether they can ever regain the respect of their peers and team. Many of them never make it to the “acceptance” stage.
That’s partly because, as social psychologists have found in decades’ worth of studies, high achievers usually take too much credit for their successes and assign too much external blame for their failures.
Some ask for candid feedback, but most turn to sympathetic friends, family members and colleagues who reinforce their self-image (“You deserved that job”) and feed their sense of injustice (“You have every right to be angry”). This prevents them from considering their own culpability and breaking free of the destructive behavior that derailed them in the first place. It may also lead them to ratchet back their current efforts and future expectations in the workplace.
Those who rebound from career losses take a decidedly different approach. Instead of getting stuck in grief or blame, they actively explore how they contributed to what went wrong, evaluate whether they sized up the situation correctly and reacted appropriately, and consider what they would do differently if given the chance. They also gather feedback from a wide variety of people, making it clear that they want honest feedback, not consolation.
IDENTIFY NEW PATHS
The next step is to objectively weight the potential for turning your loss into a win, whether that’s a different role in your organization, a move to a new company, or a shift to a different industry or career.
Reframing losses as opportunities involves hard thinking about who you are and what you want. Research shows that escapism is a common reaction to career derailment – people may take trips, immerse themselves in busywork or avoid discussing their thoughts and plans. These behaviors rarely lead to a productive transition. It’s more effective to engage in a focused exploration of all the options available.
New opportunities don’t usually present themselves right away, of course, and it can be hard to spot them in the early days after a setback. Leaders we’ve counseled describe entering a “twilight zone”: The status quo has been fatally disrupted, but it’s not clear yet what success will look like in the future.
That’s why it’s useful to take time to test out some ideas for what to do next. One option is to speak with a career counselor or engage in therapy, both to clarify goals and to work on personal development. Another is to take a temporary leave from your job to go back to school or test-drive a career interest at a startup or a nonprofit.
SEIZE THE RIGHT OPPORTUNITY
After you identify possible next steps, it’s time to pick one. This can be a little frightening. Reimagining your professional identity is one thing; bringing it to life is another. Remember, though, that you haven’t left your skills and experience behind with your last job, and you’ll also bring with you the lessons learned from the setback.
Needs and priorities can change dramatically over time – as children are born, after a divorce or a parent’s death, when early dreams fade in midlife and new ones emerge, and when perspectives and skills become outdated and new growth challenges beckon. So choosing the right opportunity has a lot to do with the moment when you happen to be looking.
For executives who decide to stay with their employers, the biggest change may be in mindset or psychological commitment. Shifting perspective takes just as much energy as switching companies or jobs. If you’re not able to dig into your current work with renewed gusto, you might decide to put more discretionary effort into family life, volunteering or hobbies, recognizing that having a rich personal life can compensate for not being No. 1 on your team or in your organization.
We all know the importance of resilience and adaptability when it comes to career success. But these qualities don’t come easily or naturally to everyone, which is why it’s so useful to have clear steps to follow after a setback. The approach laid out here can help transform the anger and self-doubt associated with failure into excitement about new possibilities.
(Mitchell Lee Marks is a leadership professor at San Francisco State University’s College of Business and the president of JoiningForces.org. Philip Mirvis is an organizational psychologist and consultant. Ron Ashkenas is a senior partner of Schaffer Consulting in Stamford, Connecticut.)


by MITCHELL LEE MARKS, PHILIP MIRVIS AND RON ASHKENAS

December 28, 2014 | 1:46 pm
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