Thought Leadership

Executive Failure - What To Do Next?

March 25, 2019 - By Jim Ward

Anticipating the loss of a job is like choosing the best way to be hit by a truck.

- William J. Morin, Parting Company

During my tenure as a corporate Human Resources executive, I experienced many different scenarios where individuals were promoted into positions they were ill suited for. Situations where individuals were promoted into leadership roles primarily due to their technical competence, product expertise or sales success, but lacked leadership skills, often lead to failure. When they failed miserably in the new role, and as a result terminated, they were traumatized. The reality is often these individuals did not have the personal attributes and/or competencies to succeed in positions requiring leadership skills, such as managing people, collaboration, interpersonal sensitivity, conflict resolution, etc. To some degree, I believe organizations should accept some role in executive failure. I hate to use sports analogies, but imagine for a moment the New York Yankees going to spring training and rigorously preparing for the upcoming season. Once the season begins, all the coaches simply disappear and leave the players on their own to play out the season and succeed! Obviously, this would never happen; owners want to protect their investment. Ironically, this is what organizations do. They promote executives into positions they are not necessarily qualified to do, and then provide no coaching or development in any way. These individuals are expected to succeed, 100% on their own. Some individuals are capable of doing it 100% on their own, most of us are not unfortunately.

The stigma of termination is often difficult to deal with. We have all experienced failure in one way of another during our lives and careers. Personally, I see failure as an opportunity to reflect. Failure is not fatal; rather it's a time to learn and grow. It takes courage and mental toughness to learn from failure, and it starts with self-reflection. The ancient Greek aphorism "know thyself" is the right place to start when dealing with failure. Often individuals will rush into the next position, role, company, and not take time to reflect. Take inventory: What went wrong? What was my role in the failure? What are my individual strengths, weaknesses, and abilities? This self-inventory is the place to start. This is also the time to acknowledge prior achievements as well, and really reflect on your interest and passion.

Rushing to the next "thing" is also where mistakes are made. I had a friend who was terminated from a top executive marketing role, a position I recommended him for. After one year in the role, he was fired. The reason given was he was a poor manager and had lost the respect of his staff. Morale was terrible and he did nothing to improve the situation. Management told him he was not the right culture fit.

He was completely flatfooted when he was terminated, left with the feeling like he had lost control of his life. Losing a job is not the end of the world; it just feels like it is.

My friend stayed on the sideline for a year, not because we wanted to, but it took him that long to land a new position. During lunch with him recently, he told me that taking a year off (while not by choice) was the best thing he ever did. It took him that long to truly understand what went wrong. Reflection, patience and personal insight - the place to start when hit with professional failure. Lack of information about ones-self, will often lead to continued failure.

In my experience, the number one rule way executives fail is they fail to change - they are not open to constructive feedback, never realizing their behavioral and performance weaknesses that need to change. Why is this – ego gets in the way. A very successful executive coach, someone who had written many books on the topic of leadership, once told me that egomaniacs’ were the most difficult people to coach. They simple knew it all! Are you that person?

In my many years of dealing with professionals at all levels who have failed, I have developed four simple rules to live by, in terms of regrouping and finding the way forward. These steps, or moments of reflection, will help you deal with failure, but most importantly; they will help you find a clear path to “what’s next."

  1. Be honest with yourself! What am I really good at? What am I not good at? Analyze the unvarnished truth about your strengths, skills and abilities. I have a family member who was fired several times because they just did not like working for someone else. Perhaps a negative character flaw, but this individual today has their own successful business and answers to just himself. He could not be happier.

  2. Detach yourself from your own negative thoughts and emotions to honestly evaluate your options. For example, if you really do not like managing others, don’t take a management job requiring that skill. Success should not be based on the number of employees you manage!

  3. Seek the advice of those you trust! We all have individuals we trust, whether its family, personal friends or professional colleagues, these are the individuals you should reach out to. Get different opinions for context and perspective. It helps!

  4. Follow your inner voice. It will not lie to you. Find the next role that maximizes your skills, passion and talent.

Honest refection will bring insights that will yield power in forging ahead. Without honest reflection, individuals moving too quickly into the next position will often fail again.

Until next time…