Your Career: How to Make a Comeback

Comebacks, from Carly Fiorina (and Jerry Brown), to Mickey Drexler, Henry Blodget, Martha Stewart, and even Steve Jobs, are in full form and fashion these days. What do all these people tell us? They tell us that you can make mistakes, get sacked, and like the nine-lived cat still return to center stage another day.

Hit a career bump (or mountain) or two? Here’s 5 things you need to know to make a comeback in business;

  1. Whatever the drama – unless you killed someone –  it will eventually subside and most people will forget about it. Henry Blodget’s case is an example: “keelhauled” and booted out of the financial services industry, he has lived for another day by resurfacing as the CEO of BusinessInsider (an interesting name, some would suggest), a host of the Yahoo Finance web show TechTicker, and as a guest and writer with a number of business news shows and publications. As I advised an exec client who had been sacked from their job as a Chief Investment Officer for a major pension fund in a case of internal politics, you become yesterday’s (old) news as soon as the next big event happens: people just don’t remember. You might keep the memory fresh in your mind – but most people won’t.
  2. It helps to have some skills or experience that are hard to find. Mickey Drexler is a retailing genius who stumbled in his last few years as CEO of the Gap. As chronicled in the Wall Street Journal – Mickey Drexler: Retail Therapisthe had the right stuff for retailer J. Crew, who had run through 3 CEOs in 5 years. At a company that is probably better sized to his hands on skills, J. Crew has been a huge success since PE fund firm TPG Capital tapped Drexler to run the firm in 2003.
  3. Pick your spots. The bounce back spot for someone who has been sacked can frequently be a role that has, as my former USC colleague Paul Jahr might say, “hair on it”  meaning that it’s less than ideal, or risky. Those roles are the ones to be avoided since they have the greatest risk but at the same time they frequently have the greatest upside. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was in exile at Pixar (where he had become a billionaire) after being booted from Apple in 1985. When Jobs returned to “save” Apple as CEO in 1997, the company by all accounts was in a nosedive to oblivion.
  4. Humble, not humbled. It helps to be able to own up to any mistakes you made, and at the same time avoid dwelling on them. Like the errant shot on goal (“We could have been champions!”) no one likes following someone who perseverates about the missed opportunity. Better to be like Mickey Drexler in this Wall Street Journal piece “Does he regret what happened? “The economy went to hell, there also was the $2 billion stock buyback. . . . As the CEO, the buck stops with me. I should have fought harder for more conservative growth and expansion. If I had to do it again, I think that’s what I’d do different. And by the way, there’s nothing wrong with being fired.” Simply put, take ownership, and move on.
  5. Perseverance counts. Research done by Angela Duckworth at Penn (see the Boston Globe’s article about her Grit Study) as well as others such as Carol Dweck demonstrate that a large part of success is perseverance. And getting badly sacked can suck the wind and the moxy out of many a good person. But unlike the character in the 10,000 Maniacs song Like the Weather

“The color of the sky as far as I can see is coal grey.
Lift my head from the pillow and then fall again.
With a shiver in my bones just thinking about the weather.
A quiver in my lips as if I might cry.
Well by the force of will my lungs are filled and so I breathe.
Lately it seems this big bed is where I never leave.”

people with perseverance keep on plugging along, albeit if only one step after another. It is the ability to grit things out that Duckworth’s research suggests makes all the difference in the world. Perseverance is the key to any comeback

So that’s it – 5 keys to mounting your comeback. Good luck! You’ve got history on your side – and more than a few comebacks to use as inspirations for your own.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.