What I Learned When I Got Fired (the First Time)

By Sallie Krawcheck, Past President of Merrill Lynch, US Trust, Smith Barney

There are some things worth being fired over. Sometimes your personal values don’t mesh with the company’s (regardless of what the company’s “Values Statement” says). Back in 2008, at Smith Barney, we had sold supposedly low-risk investments to our clients. But instead of their value declining modestly during the downturn, they went to very close to $0. I never found any evidence of wrong-doing; but I did recognize that we had nonetheless breached our clients’ trust, regardless of what the small print said. I proposed that we share part of the losses with them – both because it was the “right thing” to do, but also very much because sharing the impact of the hit would, I thought, be the “right business thing” to do. There were others who disagreed; after much back-and-forth (and many “no’s”), my team’s argument won the day, but it was clear I wasn’t long for the company.

Squeeze every bit of personal development out of the experience. Ok, this one can be hard. But in the first few weeks out of the company, I made it a practice to ask anyone and everyone what I could have done better or how I could have managed the situation more effectively. This was hardly pleasant, but surprised people into an invaluable honest discussion.

…..But don’t listen to your “frenemies.” But know who to listen to. I remember a very senior, very connected, very savvy woman who very kindly told me that my career was over, that having a falling out with a large company was a career-ending event, regardless of the reasons. She authoritatively told me that a man might be able to have a next career chapter, but a woman couldn’t. I chose to completely ignore her.

Cut the cord with the old workplace more quickly than you may want to.  Here is where I made a real mistake. I continued to speak regularly to my former colleagues; my reasoning was that I wanted to be helpful to them and continue to coach them. The truth is, it was a sad drag for them and for me. I should have closed that door faster.

It’s important to have connections outside of your company. This is pretty self-explanatory. But it’s easy to tell yourself you’ll form these connections later, since few people plan to be fired and the return on this investment can be hard to see, when there are always more urgent matters.

If you’re able to, don’t make any big decisions right away. I had a friend tell me shortly after I left “When something like this happens, you think you’re thinking straight, but you’re not. You won’t think straight for at least three months.” If you have the luxury of avoiding any major career decisions that long, the perspective you gain after decompressing can be valuable.

Nobody cares as much about it nearly as much as you do. I promise.

….But candor helps with future employers. Evading the question wasn’t a particularly good idea in 1985, when your awkward silence may have been a give-away. In this age of social media, it’s an even worse idea. Own it.

Good results help even more. Let’s face it: it’s one thing to be swept out of a company because a new manager wants to put his own team in place and another because you didn’t deliver business results. In finding that next job, be fact-based and specific on the business results you and your team achieved in the prior one.

If you don’t get fired at least once, you’re not trying hard enough. This isn’t quite true yet, but it is becoming truer. As the pace of change in business increases, the chances of having a placid career are receding. And if in this period of rapid change, you’re not making some notable mistakes along the way, you’re certainly not taking enough business and career chances.

You can’t beat someone who won’t give up. Yes, I read this on a bumper sticker, but it’s still true.

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