How losing the top job can make you better off.
If anyone had told me that one of the worst moments of my career would pay off in spades in the long run, I wouldn’t have believed it.
The position of president was up for grabs and I was one of the shortlisted candidates; it was a huge opportunity and a huge responsibility. (The company had $2-billion in sales at that point).
I suspected who else was in the running. All were colleagues in the company, all were people I respected, and all were people I wanted to beat – badly.
The selection process comprised the usual headhunter interviews and leadership testing, followed by an interview with the selection subcommittee of the board.
I nailed the headhunter component of the selection process and was told that I had the top scores from the testing.
Even though I thought I could have handled the board interview better (I didn’t handle the finance questions particularly well I thought), I didn’t think it was a disaster and I wasn’t concerned that it would destroy my chances to win the contest and grab the prize.
The day of reckoning arrived. The board chair called all executives into the boardroom to announce the winner of the battle for president.
I was very nervous and expectant; my adrenalin was rushing.
All eyes were on me as it was common knowledge that I considered myself to be the front runner for the job.
It was over in a heartbeat. One of my colleagues and a very good friend with whom I ‘grew up’ in the organization was the winner.
The words announcing his appointment had barely left the chair’s mouth when I was overcome by agonizing pain in my gut. I couldn’t take a breath.
I thought I was well prepared for a decision that could go against me.
I had done my premortem work — practising ‘hindsite in advance’ — to protect myself for a negative outcome by thinking through my ‘do not be surprised’ plan: the actions I would take if the outcome went against me.
I imagined that each of the candidates would win and I prepared response plans in my head in the eventuality one of them was selected.
My concern was that if I didn’t have a plan to deal with a negative outcome in real time, the surprise could very well cause me to say, look, or do something that would not serve my long-term career goals very well.
It’s one thing to have a plan but it’s quite another thing to have to execute a worst-case scenario in front of the board chair, my executive peers and my new boss.
Without hesitation – it must have been an involuntary response as I don’t recall consciously thinking about it – I arose from my chair, walked over to the winner and congratulated him in a heartfelt manner.
I made sure everyone could see it and could hear my words; I offered him my support and unwavering loyalty.
They were all surprised with how I handled the situation, given that they understood how much I wanted to be president.
The feedback I received was gratifying. My behaviour was deemed ‘mature,’ indicative of a senior executive leader who could take a punch in the gut and who could place the needs of the organization before his own.
My currency with the board and executive leadership team escalated. My career continued to be rewarding and I was given many exciting opportunities to learn and contribute to the organization’s success.
No one could have convinced me that losing a senior promotion such as this could ever be a long-term career sweetener that allowed me to learn, practise and develop my own dimensions of stand-out leadership.
But it did.
It’s all about how one deals with a bad hand. You can bail out screaming how unfair you’ve been treated, or you can look for a way to turn a bad lot into a prosperous outcome for everyone. And you can take a short term view or a long term perspective.
Muzzle your ego, suck it up and make the call with your long-term interests in mind
P.S. In anyone’s career there are always going to be setbacks; no one ever gets to reach their career goals in a straight line — strategic meandering is the normal route.
Here’s my list of what you need to consider if you want to be a ‘survivor leader’ in the face of these body blows:
- Always do what’s right for the organization even though it could place you at personal risk;
- Shut your mouth — pause and breathe — and suck it up when you get hit with a disappointment;
- Look to the horizon not your shoes when making a decision in a emotionally charged situation;
- Go against the ‘popular’ advice when hit with a career blow. It may not feel good but it’s often the best course of action to take;
- Keep working hard in the face of adversity and show ‘em what you got;
- Be wary of advice from those close to you. Sometimes their judgement is more clouded by emotion than yours is.