Back on Course

Whether your career seems to have gone adrift, or whether you've run afoul of some reputational mishap, here's how you can set your ship in order.
Lisa YoonDecember 5, 2003

For every big-name CFO whose name disgraced the evening news in recent years, many more law-abiding finance folks have sullied their reputations in subtle ways.

The causes are usually mundane — yet often the person in question simply doesn’t recognize the problem, or doesn’t believe that anything can be done. “This is typical; I hear this all the time,” says Pam Lassiter, a Boston-based executive coach. “But you can manage your reputation.”

Whether that person is you or someone you know, the career experts we consulted for this article returned to one theme again and again — only you can take the initiative to get your career back on course. After all, should the job market continue to show signs of picking up, you wouldn’t want to miss the boat.

Get a Clue

Ask any career coach or recruiter about how to set a career awry, and you’ll hear about the finance executive who is clueless about working with other people.

Dr. Steven Berglas — a psychiatrist, an executive coach, and the author of Reclaiming the Fire, about recovery from career burnout — says that a clash of egos is the most common reason finance executives get fired. One of his former clients was a brilliant CFO with a stellar academic pedigree. “But he was the most controlling S.O.B,” says Berglas. “Everyone who reported to him hated him.” Eventually “John” (as we’ll call him) became so hated that he was dismissed. This was the third consecutive position he lost for that same reason.

For John, repairing his reputation as a difficult manager meant taking a step that may sound frightening to many finance executives: He took two years off to figure out what went wrong. During this time Berglas coached John and administered psychotherapy. With Berglas’s help, John “is still a control freak,” but he has learned to ask for more frequent updates on his staff’s work. This allows him to catch things going wrong early and offer more-tempered and productive responses. The criticism comes across as creative feedback, rather than a red-faced, smoke-blowing tantrum after the work is completed.

Examining and addressing problems, as John did, is the first step to repairing a damaged image, advises executive coach Linda Dominguez. “If you have a reputation for being difficult,” says the author of How to Shine at Work, “you really need to stop and take a look at why. You can’t just ‘not do’ the offending behavior anymore.”

Trying simply to “not do” certain behavior landed one senior finance executive in Dominguez’s office. “Marge,” according to her 360-degree feedback report, was difficult, fastidious to a fault, and bent on proving others wrong while insisting she was right.

Indeed, proving others wrong was how she chose to respond to the feedback report. She decided that going forward, she would be nice; “she put on a happy face,” says Dominguez. The act lasted about three weeks. Meanwhile, as her superiors and the CEO continued to study the feedback reports, they concluded that Marge was a problem for the organization. In a meeting with Marge, the CEO insisted that she correct this problem or face termination. He gave her 60 days and Dominguez’s number.

Two months isn’t a lot of time to fix a deep-seeded personality problem, and at first, Dominguez herself wasn’t sure that Marge would make it. “She had absolutely no self-awareness,” Dominguez explains. “It was just defend, deny, and deflect.” Nevertheless, Dominguez had Marge make a list of the key people with whom she didn’t get along with and assess why communication was so bad in each relationship. Then Marge met individually with each person on the list and talked about how they could communicate more effectively. She improved enough to pass her “60 days” and stay on at the company.

Get Out a Little More Often

It’s a truism that the most successful finance executives are business strategists, not merely bean counters. The flip side, though observed less often, is equally significant: Mere bean counters don’t just lose promotions, they endanger their careers.

Constance Dierickx of RHR International — an executive-coaching firm whose partners are also psychologists — tells of one controller who “almost ended her career” because of her inability to see the big picture. “Edna” was smart, came from a top business school, and was well-liked by her colleagues — outside of work.

“She found herself in a world of hurt career-wise because she was completely one-dimensional,” says Dierickx. “She saw the business exclusively through numbers.” Because of her lack of appreciation for operations, she didn’t see the implications of the numbers; in a meeting, she might say something like, “Well, you have to take that cost out,” without evaluating what that cost meant to operating the business.

Eventually, says Dierickx, Edna’s colleagues in operations became resentful toward her and her rigidity with the numbers. When she was up for promotion, she was passed over. In explaining to Edna why she didn’t get the job, her managers realized she had a problem and sent her to Dierickx, who was already working with the company on another issue.

Dierickx applied a two-pronged approach. First, she instructed Edna to get out of the finance department — to spend time in the operating units and ask questions along the way. Second, as people slowly began noticing Edna’s new appreciation for operations, Dierickx advised her superiors to give her feedback, both good and bad. She also he asked them to make a point of spreading positive reports about Edna, “to create a different kind of buzz,” according Dierickx. Edna is still with the same company — now as the finance chief.

Get Yourself back in the Game

Marge and Edna were fortunate that their employers gave them a chance to address their flaws before showing them the door. But you don’t have to work for a benevolent boss to start over with a new image.

If you were fired, don’t take it personally, and don’t let it shake your confidence. “Sometimes when people get fired,” says career-management consultant Ed Kelleher, “they can’t distinguish between ‘failure’ and ‘my failure.’ Often, firings are simply about compatibility with the company culture.”

If you’re between jobs, especially if you have a tarnished reputation, “don’t expect the recruiter to be your friend,” says executive-career consultant Larry Stybel. “You have to put in the effort and use your networks.” (That’s good advice even when you have a job, notes executive coach Lassiter. “CFOs frequently keep their head down and do a great job and don’t consciously think about [their] professional reputation,” she says. “But they should, and not only for themselves. It helps the company too.”)

“John,” when he was ready to emerge from his two-year break as Berglas’s client, sought out an advocate from his business-school days — a well-known and respected professor under whom John had written his honors thesis. Through the professor and other contacts, John managed to land a job on his sixth application; he’s now the CFO at another company.

Stybel recommends reintroducing yourself at industry meetings; if need be, you should attempt to mend relationships by being honest about past problems, and even apologizing for your previous bad behavior. It’s not a bad idea — after you’ve addressed your problems — to meet with a boss that fired you, adds Dominguez. By demonstrating to your old boss that now you “get it,” you might actually pick up another good reference.

When you land an interview, be prepared to talk about a past problem in a forthright, sensible, and non-defensive manner; don’t make the interviewer draw it out of you. “Always say the bad news first,” says Berglas. For example, “if you locked horns, put it on the table. You lose nothing by saying you didn’t get along with someone.” Then explain how you addressed the problem and moved beyond it.

A more precarious situation is when you have some career flaw that the interviewer doesn’t talk about; that’s a sign you’re about to be cut from the short list. In that case, says Stybel, “It is incumbent on you to bring it up.” Kelleher agrees: “If you and I both know between us there’s an unasked question, confront it.”

“The more you explain your failures, the more likely [the interviewer will be that] you won’t do it again,” says Stybel. For those who still have doubts, says Berglas, you might be able to take a contract at will. Ultimately, however, your openness about past missteps will make the biggest impact. “You don’t surprise people by talking about your faults,” says Berglas, “you surprise people by your candor” in acknowledging them.

You’ll also face rejection — but what job search isn’t an exercise in rejection acceptance? The benefit is more compelling: Sooner or later you’ll find someone who is impressed by your candor, who will hire you at a firm that’s a good fit for you. Stybel recalls one CFO client who had a significant gap in his resume; he had spent that time getting treatment for drug abuse. It was important for him not to lie about it and to raise the issue himself if the interviewer didn’t ask. He lost a lot of jobs that way, acknowledges Stybel, but eventually he got a job with a CEO who not only admired his forthrightness, but who had himself been in alcohol treatment.

Finally, one simple piece of advice is emphatically repeated by career experts: Don’t badmouth anyone. As Stybel says, only somewhat facetiously, “Always describe your last boss as the moral equivalent of Mahatma Ghandi and Mother Theresa, and that working for them was a great experience.”