The Incredible Bouncing Boss

After being fired, an executive can come "firing back," according to a well-timed new book on recovering from career disasters.
Economist StaffFebruary 22, 2007

Company bosses are being fired in record numbers nowadays. In some ways this is not the disaster for them that being axed is for the rest of humanity, as the chances are they have been paid well enough to have saved plenty of money. Indeed, many of them will collect a large “golden parachute” payment with their redundancy letter. Yet the psychological blow caused by dismissal may be far more devastating to the formerly lionised — now unwanted — corporate leader than it is to mere mortals.

The good news is that having been fired, a boss can come “firing back”, according to a well-timed new book by Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and Andrew Ward on how executives recover from career disasters. Having previously written about the ending of great careers in “The Hero’s Farewell”, Mr Sonnenfeld, who runs the Yale Chief Executive Leadership Institute, has decided that the time is ripe for a message of hope for fallen bosses everywhere.

How to rebound from failure is not a subject much addressed in business schools, he laments, despite their growing obsession with teaching leadership. After all, this is a subject about which the most scholarly tome, until now, has arguably been the 1997 bestseller, “Trump: The Art of the Comeback”, by Donald Trump, a tycoon-turned-TV-star whose career has more bounce in it than even his coiffure. (Ironically, his most famous line in “The Apprentice” is “You’re fired!”)

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Mr Trump’s story is told again in “Firing Back”, along with those of a cast of characters, ranging from jailbirds, such as Martha Stewart and Michael Milken, to ousted Wall Street bankers, such as Jamie Dimon and John Mack (who have bounced back to be heads of JPMorgan Chase and Morgan Stanley, respectively).

To make the fundamental point that failure, however catastrophic, need not be the end, the authors draw from a deep well of wisdom, quoting everyone from Jesus Christ and Michel Foucault to Friedrich Nietzsche — “What does not destroy me, makes me stronger” — and a British anarchist rock band, Chumbawamba. At times, the quotations come so thick and fast that by the time the reader meets Rudyard Kipling’s two impostors, Triumph and Disaster, and treats them just the same, it feels a bit like reading one of those desk calendars full of aphorisms.

“Firing Back” is saved from cliché by its insider’s view — the authors have clearly gained the confidence of many bosses who would normally keep their struggles to themselves or a therapist — and by some worldly advice, in sharp contrast to the content-free blandishments of most business books.

There is a five-point plan, which begins with “fight not flight”: it is crucial not to become so preoccupied with coping with failure that you fail to pursue a new career seriously. The story is told of how Mr Dimon decided to seek out his former mentor, Sandy Weill, who had fired him from Citigroup, a year later. “I wanted to get this event behind me so I could move on. I made my own mistakes. I acknowledged I was partly to blame.”

The ousted boss also needs to “rebuild heroic stature”, prove his mettle to regain credibility and rediscover his “heroic mission”. Much of this boils down to reputation management. Despite Mr Dimon’s admirable private candour, the authors urge executives to devise a plausible narrative about their failure that includes “clearly denying culpability, shifting responsibility for the mishap, reducing the offensiveness of the act, giving the appearance of reasonable behaviour and offering acceptable motives.” Head-hunters may be a more important audience for this story than intimates or the broader public. Some sources of failure are better than others: get fired during a merger, a political clash or over a strategic disagreement, and you have a two-thirds chance of returning to corporate leadership within two years. Best avoid being sacked for poor performance, unacceptable personal conduct or illegal behaviour, however.

The role of friends in helping the boss bounce back is particularly important. A broad network of acquaintances helps find new jobs, but only close friends can provide essential moral support. Kenneth Langone, a financier, emerges as a particularly fine friend, using his own rebound from regulatory troubles to inspire several other fallen bosses, with his catchphrase, “You’ve just been kicked in the ass with a golden horseshoe.”

It was Mr Langone who urged Richard Grasso to fight charges related to his time as chairman of the New York Stock Exchange. He also encouraged Robert Nardelli to bounce back after he was passed over as successor to Jack Welch at General Electric. Mr Nardelli got a chance at the second act that F. Scott Fitzgerald said did not happen in America by becoming chief executive of Home Depot. Alas, last month, after the book went to press, Mr Nardelli lost that job (despite being paid something like $125m since 2000). Perhaps this book will help him on to a third act.