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 suddenly 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 and angry that his boss hadn’t given him a chance to prove himself. Eventually, however, he recognised 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 particularly keen to figure out how to foster loyalty in future employees.
Within a few months, a large industrial parts company impressed with Brian’s undisputed ability to meet financial targets recruited him to lead a division. The job was a step down from his previous role, but he decided to take 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, yet another company – this time, 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 one lesson from Brian’s story applies pretty universally: 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, you 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 (as a result of mergers, restructurings, competition for top jobs, or personal failings). 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.
People focus on situational factors or company politics instead of examining their own role in the problem. Some ask others 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 behaviour 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 (including superiors, peers, and subordinates), making it clear that they want honest feedback, not consolation.
Brian had to engage in frank, somewhat painful conversations with his boss, several direct reports, and a few trusted colleagues to discover that he had developed a career-limiting reputation for being difficult and not always in control of his emotions.
Identify New Paths
The next step is to objectively weigh the potential for turning your loss into a win, whether that’s a different role in your organisation, 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 to get away from their troubles, immerse themselves in busywork, drink or eat excessively, or avoid discussing their thoughts and plans with family and friends. While these behaviours can give you mental space to sort things out, they rarely lead to a productive transition. It’s more effective to engage in a focused exploration of all the options available.
Reframing losses as opportunities
New opportunities don’t usually present themselves right away, of course, and it can be hard to spot them through the fog of anger and disappointment in the early days after a setback. Recall how Brian reacted when he was fired from his unit-head job: He began to consider lower-level positions that would give him room to tinker with his leadership style.
Seize the Right Opportunity
After you identify possible next steps, it’s time to pick one. Admittedly, this can be a little frightening, especially if you’re venturing into unknown career territory. 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. You may also have productively revised your definition of success.
Research we’ve conducted, along with career specialist Douglas Hall, shows that needs and priorities can change dramatically over time –as children are born or grow up and move out, 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.
This article first appeared in the Harvard Business Review.