Beyond ‘Fix or Fire’

How should a CEO deal with a high performing executive who is nonetheless something of a rogue within the organization? Here 5 steps to take control of such situations.

Charles was a very smart, creative, and rather eccentric senior executive who had begun to run afoul of several members of the organization’s executive committee. He was inconsistent in responding to their requests, was at times outright rude, and seemed to view the organization only through the filter of his own department’s needs. Yet, he had built an effective group, developed important new products, and had won public acclaim for the organization. Skip, his boss and CEO, was in conflict about what to do. On one hand, his senior staff, whom he had worked with for years, seemed dead set against Charles, sometimes personally so. They did not believe he could work with them on the executive committee; and when he was particularly uncooperative or rude, they agitated for his dismissal. On the other hand, Charles had proved invaluable to the enterprise, which had grown far beyond what it had been in the “old days” when the other members of the EC were junior department heads. Should Skip promote Charles to the EC? How should he address Charles’ behavior and the implacable opposition to him from the old-timers on the EC?

This scenario (a composite of several cases observed over the past 15 years) is well known to most CEOs and senior executives. Jack Welch, in his 2000 annual report for General Electric, recognized that of the four types of managers, the “Type 4” manager who doesn’t share the values but delivers the numbers “is the toughest call of all.” Welch was insistent that managers like Charles have to be removed, and argued persuasively that doing so was foundational to building a great culture. But is it really all that clear? Stay with me while I raise questions about this conventional wisdom, and walk you through a more nuanced consideration of the issues involved in managing these maverick executives.

Whether we like it or not the creativity and innovation needed for organizational success often flow from “talented and difficult” executives (TaD). These men and women combine characteristics like temperamental, obsessive, tyrannical, and self-centered with vision and creativity. (The late Steve Jobs may be the most well-known and extreme example.) This group includes very talented business leaders who might be shy and socially awkward, or prone to emotional outbursts and inappropriate behavior. Widely viewed as misfits, their signature characteristic is difficulty working with other people, especially their peers. They are typically “narcissistic” in the general sense of the term, exhibiting difficulty empathizing with others and seeing things from another’s perspective.

One alternative to Welch’s “fire” is talent management’s “fix” approach to the TaD executive. But these policies, procedures, and programs are usually geared to the average personality type. They usually don’t work with the “talented and difficult” since in these cases personality dynamics act as barriers to absorbing corporate norms and values. And TaD executives, who have made it into the senior ranks by contributing mightily to the firm’s success, are often dismissive of soft-skills training designed for more junior executives.

We need to move beyond traditional “fix or fire” approaches to develop more individualized methods to harness the originality of the TaD executive. This starts with you, the TaD executive’s manager. Like Skip, the CEO I described above, you know that these situations defy easy answers, and you spend considerable time and energy “under the radar” on the individualized management of these executives. Your approach to the TaD’s is the critical factor in whether they are retained or let go. You are the real “thought leader” in these cases, but let me offer some advice.

As you struggle with the complex issues involved in deciding whether to keep or terminate the TaD executive, you should first assess whether you are being driven by irrational fears. On one hand you may worry that if you terminate the TaD executive the business will tank. Deep down, do you feel that your own success rides on this individual’s accomplishments and that you could be vulnerable if you let him or her go? Can you objectively evaluate the real impact of dismissing the TaD executive on the business and on your own future?

Conversely, you may be afraid to fully commit to retaining the TaD executive. You may fear going against the common wisdom that pervades your organization. Organizational culture is powerful, but not always right! In my example, the culture of the organization had been shaped by the EC’s old-timers and was in some ways hidebound, narrow-minded, and frustrating. Skip, the CEO, was a thoughtful and measured leader who intuitively sensed the groupthink of his senior executive team. But he preferred to avoid conflict, and his reluctance to rock the boat meant that he missed important opportunities to shape the organizational culture and grow as a leader.

On a deeper level, Skip’s avoidance of difficult conversations with the members of his EC grew out of his own anger and frustration with them. Sometimes the TaD’s bad behavior is symptomatic of problems in the behavior and performance of the senior executive team. The courage to address these issues can relieve some of the pressure and dysfunction in the executive team and shift the focus away from the TaD executive exclusively.

Clarifying your own thinking about the TaD executive and the entire leadership team (including yourself) is an ongoing process. Situations change, but if you commit to really engaging and trying to retain the TaD executive, consider the following:

  • The relationship of mutual trust and respect between you and the TaD executive is the most important talent management resource the organization has. Never lose sight of this fact. Work to build and sustain this relationship and don’t be too put off if your star performer becomes irritable or defensive. He or she may need to test the relationship and you may need to challenge them to develop more trust.
  • Show consistent interest in understanding the TaD executive’s point of view on an issue or controversy. These are people whose stock in trade is to feel misunderstood! Unbeknownst to them, they also lack a capacity to see things from others’ points of view. Look beyond self-justification by remembering how sensitive TaD executives can be to negative feedback or criticism. But don’t be too hesitant to disagree or give feedback – doing so can build credibility and trust.
  • Assess the TaD executive’s level of organizational loyalty. While these executives typically appear to be out for themselves, probe for a foundational sense of commitment to the organization. An executive who primarily sees himself or herself as a “gun for hire” and who demonstrates repeated indifference or hostility to the organizational mission may be in the wrong job. But one who has a commitment to the organizational mission should be helped to connect more strongly to the enterprise. Use the organizational resources at your disposal – a senior mentor in another line of business, a leadership position on an enterprise-wide committee or task force, etc.
  • Respond effectively to resistance from the TaD executive’s peers as a necessary part of this process. TaD executives send signals of aloofness, disregard, and contempt. Consequently, controversy often swirls around them. Peers may be polarized and take “all or nothing” stances, challenging you to explain why you are not demanding conformity to organizational norms (usually code for demoting or firing their TaD peer). This is expectable and requires patience, and yes, reassurance to your other executives.
  • You are not forcing the TaD executive to change; you are encouraging him or her to grow. This may seem like a semantic issue, but it is important. You are trying to help the TaD executive improve as a leader. Your goal is not to take something away but to add something to their leadership toolkit. Which, by the way, will stand them in good stead whatever job they’re in.

After struggling with his maverick executive and the reactions of his leadership team, Skip finally promoted Charles to the EC, not because Charles set an admirable example but because his contribution was essential and he needed to be part of the senior executive discussion. This decision relieved some of Charles’ insecurity and may have also bought time for Charles to address issues in other spheres of his life. Charles became relatively less difficult and was able to contribute to the organization longer than most had expected.

Managing the TaD executive is not for the faint-hearted. However, the effort is worth it for both extrinsic and intrinsic reasons. If you can retain the TaD executive and better align him or her with the organizational mission, if only for a period of time, you will have contributed greatly to the organization’s aims and productivity. And you will have grown in your ability to lead a diverse, high performing team, taking your talent management skills to the next level.

The Right Way to Receive a Year-End Review

People spend a lot of time dealing with year-end reviews, whether they’re giving them or receiving them. Unfortunately, most of what they feel about them is negative. In a previous article, I discussed how to make giving a year-end review a more useful leadership experience. This article is about how to get the most out of receiving a performance review this year.

In an ideal world, you and your manager would both think of your review as a tool to help you develop your skills and talents. However, the typical organization’s culture and processes don’t encourage that. Reviews are often primarily about compensation and disregard for anything less tangible. That makes you focus on giving yourself the best press to get the best deal. In some places reviews are considered an empty ritual. That doesn’t lead to honest and engaged discussion with your manager either. In any case, unless the year-end review is part of an ongoing feedback process, heightened emotions and destructive behavior are almost inevitable.

Still, even in an unfavorable environment you can turn the ritual into a productive effort. The key is to develop a perspective on the review process that can guide you–and your manager–toward growth. First you must understand how emotional challenges can derail the process. Then you can develop the skills to increase your payback.

Getting a job performance review raises powerful emotions for several reasons:

Fear: People often approach their reviews as crime-and-punishment situations. The scene can evoke early parent-child dynamics, so you find yourself struggling with feelings of vulnerability, fearing criticism and punishment. This emotional turbulence can prevent you from hearing the feedback you’re given, let alone putting it to good use.

Perfectionism: Your fear may be intertwined with unrealistically high standards you hold for yourself. You may need to be praised as the good child or the good student, and thus dismiss any feedback that smacks of criticism. You may feel deflated and embarrassed by anything that isn’t a full-throated endorsement of your achievements and talents. This kind of ego deflation often gives rise to anger and resentment toward your manager.

Mistrust: Lack of trust is the most frequent derailer of the review process. You may mistrust everyone in authority. Or you may mistrust a manager who lacks self-awareness, can’t handle his or her emotions, or uses a crime-and-punishment style. You may actually like your manager but still not trust him or her to give it to you straight. It’s your responsibility to do an honest reading of your own level of trust. It could be you’ll have to find alternative sources of developmental feedback, as we’ll discuss below.

Once you understanding these derailers of the review process, you can develop responses that can impress even a recalcitrant manager. You can manage the process for your own growth and development, as long as you focus on strengthening your mastery of the following key psychological skills:

Open-mindedness: Start by recognizing two key psychological facts of life. First, most of us are far more likely to overestimate our own performance than to underestimate it. Second, true open-mindedness, especially about oneself, is extremely hard to achieve. Criticism can threaten our identity and self-esteem, and we seem to be wired as a species to reject or downplay it. We have a lot at stake in maintaining our image of who we think we are. The problem is compounded by the fact that in American business open-mindedness is commonly seen as self-doubt or paralysis. Open-mindedness means listening honestly and not being defensive. Defensiveness is natural, especially during a critical review, so watch for signs of it, such as making excuses (you’d call them reasons) or extensive explanations. A persistent feeling that you’re misunderstood is another sign of defensiveness.

Self-awareness and self-confidence: If you’ve made productive use of criticism over the course of your career, you have real insight into your skills, talents and goals. The year-end review is another opportunity to evaluate the fit between you and the organization, and to assess whether you can grow and develop in your current position. Your self-confidence may be tested if you find you need to advocate for more or different responsibilities, or especially if you conclude that you have to leave the organization to find a more suitable position.

Partnership building: You’ve got to be an active participant in your own career growth and development. This is easiest if your manager shares your interest in your development. If not, you may need to address issues of conflict and trust between you and the manager. You may also need to persuade him or her to give you regular feedback and help remove organizational barriers to your achievement of your goals.

Before your review meeting, prepare yourself psychologically. During the meeting, watch for strong, disruptive emotions, either yours or your manager’s. If they surface, you might suggest taking a break and reconvening at a later time. Ultimately, if there’s nothing you can do to rebuild trust between you and your manager, you may want to discuss the meeting with a colleague you can rely on to be fair and balanced.

A good performance review process–one that is systematic, fair, and has psychological integrity–is at the heart of the mutual influence and social understanding that hold organizations together. A more productive year-end review can improve organizational alignment and unleash your own productive energy–and both those things drive bottom-line results.

The Right Way to Give a Year-End Review

Up and down the chain of command, year-end performance reviews fill people with dread or with resentment, and very rarely with joy. Both the givers and the receivers spend a lot of time on the reviews, yet they generally see them as an empty exercise. After all the procedural T’s are crossed and the I’s dotted, it takes people skills to get a real return on investment from this important, labor-intensive process. Leaders need to set an example by turning a ritual into a productive effort.

This column addresses giving a review. In a subsequent article I’ll tackle how to get the most out of receiving a review. Both articles aim to challenge you to shift your focus to the emotional experience on both sides of the table, and to increase the payback from year-end reviews by developing some key psychological skills.

The organizational barriers to having productive year-end reviews can be formidable. The tight link between reviews and compensation discourages openness and honesty. Managers at all levels may think as much about their organization’s needs as about individual performance when they do the reviews. For example, interdepartmental rivalries can force a kind of uniformity on your reviews as you try to do the best you can for your people in terms of compensation. If your organization’s culture discourages open and honest feedback (“we don’t do warm and fuzzy”), you may feel constrained to just focus on the numbers. Anything else might make you feel like an outlier and make your direct report feel singled out and anxious.

But even in an unfavorable organizational environment there are things you can control to get more from the process. By better understanding the experience on a gut emotional level and working on some key psychological skills, you can create a more useful experience and become a better leader in the process.

Ideally, the year-end review is all about the employee’s development. As a leader committed to optimal performance, you understand the importance of the fit between an employee’s skills, talents, and career goals and his or her organizational role. When you know how best to connect the arc of individual development with the direction of your organization, you form a partnership for growth with the employee. This partnership depends on candid feedback on the individual’s performance, your identification of personal and organizational barriers to better performance and your ongoing availability to help remove those barriers.

Managers commonly get derailed from the ideal developmental focus in year-end reviews by their own personal psychological challenges. It happens in these ways:

–Conflict avoidance: A fear of conflict can lead you to avoid difficult–and also meaningful–performance discussions with your subordinates. That fear of conflict can arise from deep-seated personal issues, a lack of skills for managing conflict or both.

–Need for approval: A strong need for approval often goes hand in hand with conflict avoidance. Managers approach their roles as a vehicle for acceptance and admiration more often than is commonly acknowledged. If you seek affirmation from your employees, even unconsciously, you may be sacrificing longer-term development and performance in favor of short-term comfort and acceptance. At the same time, your inability to put your own needs aside makes it difficult to earn subordinates’ trust and respect.

–Mistrust: Your overall mistrust of people and their motives may make you think that employees don’t want to hear corrective feedback, can’t take it in and won’t use it constructively. If you have a high level of mistrust, you may be convinced that people in general are incapable of changing, are motivated by fear and learn only by being punished.

–Lack of self-awareness: An inability to acknowledge your own motives and goals for the year-end review can mean mixed messages for your employees, sabotaging the process. For example, by denying your own negative feelings toward a subordinate, you may force the review into a developmental framework that’s frustrating for both you and the employee, who really needs to be managed out of the organization. At the other extreme, you could be hijacked by your own feelings of disappointment or envy and end up attacking an employee.

Work on the following core psychological skills and you will increase the benefit you and your employees get from the reviews you must give this year:

–Empathy: I take empathy to mean an accurate understanding of another’s emotional experience. Empathy toward your employees starts with your reviewing your own experiences receiving feedback. It always pays to be able to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Be guided by an understanding that people generally overestimate their own performance. We humans are hard-wired to maintain a positive self-image, and we tend to reject painful criticism. Your empathy increases when you deliberately seek to grasp what motivates people, what career goals are most important to them, what kind of standards they set for themselves and how they react to not living up to those standards. Empathy will enable you to craft each review message in a way that motivates each person to grow.

–Trustworthiness: Without trust, the year-end review is dead on arrival. The effective review depends on trust; it is also a prime opportunity to build trust. Work on your trustworthiness to make the review process more productive for all concerned. Do you consistently have your employees’ best interests in mind? Do you follow through on your commitments to facilitate their development? Will you act in ways that go beyond your self-interest? Take time to look in the mirror and consider whether others see you as trustworthy.

–Self-knowledge: It isn’t easy to keep your own personal likes and dislikes out of your objective assessment of someone else’s work, achievements or failures. You need to be scrupulously honest with yourself, confronting your own needs, motives and biases whenever you approach your employees. Take the time to reflect on your own experience receiving reviews to guide you to a better understanding of your strengths and weaknesses in the process. When you have strong personal feelings about an employee, you may want to consult trusted colleagues to get a different perspective.

Going at the year-end performance review ritual with a fresh psychological perspective is a quick way to increase your payback from all the hours you will spend writing, reviewing and delivering important information. This year, acknowledge the strong emotions reviews elicit in you, as the giver, and in each person who receives the formal feedback. Develop your own empathy, trustworthiness and self-knowledge to enable yourself to strike a better balance between the evaluative and developmental aspects of the review. Your skill in laying out a path for better performance, identifying the employee’s core barriers to achieving his or her performance goals and providing ongoing assistance will enable you to both get the most from year-end reviews and grow as an authentic leader.

Tips on Building Organizational Resilience

The challenges of the “Great Recession” have again put the concept of organizational resilience in the spotlight. This downturn has reminded us how organizational life is characterized by periods of adversity, and that the psychological health of organizations (like that of individuals) hinges on the capacity to bounce back or recover from a significant setback. Organizational resilience links psychological health with adaptability, sustainability and long-term profitability.Over the past 10 years I have worked with managers on how to build organizational resilience, first in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and then in relation to the ensuing economic recession. In the face of life-threatening events, layoffs and restructurings, I have seen a growing recognition that managers need to help their employees handle the stressful effects of these occurrences. Going the next step to actively optimize organizational resilience is becoming a managerial core competency.

As a manager, leader, HR adviser or psychological consultant, you can help your organization respond more effectively to current adversity and build resilience and increased adaptability for the future by following these basic guidelines.

Anticipate and acknowledge reality. If your business is declining and austerity measures will be required, be informed. Know the plans for change, the timeline and the extent of impact so you can develop a clear communication strategy. Acknowledge the realities of fear and stress.

Stay involved and keep it personal. Employees respond in highly personal and individual ways to stressful conditions. Become knowledgeable about the stressful effects of organizational change and who will be most vulnerable. The personal touch is important now more than ever, and is part of the foundation of a sustainable, resilient culture.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate!!! Explain the context and rationale for changes in the organization. Monitor the emotional tone of your communications – neither “doom and gloom” nor blind optimism. Take the time to listen – good communication is two-way communication.

Draw on your own and others’ narratives of resilience. Self-awareness is one of your most powerful tools. Think about how you have faced setbacks and adversity in the past and listen for similar stories from your colleagues. Using your personal narrative helps give you credibility which is essential to fostering organizational resilience.

Reassert your organization’s moral purpose and help employees continue to find meaning in their work. Organizations that weave a sense of moral purpose into the fabric of their cultures cope best with trauma and change. That sense of purpose grows out of core values that enable the organization to thrive and achieve a special, lasting place in the wider world.

Remember the Three C’s – Control, Commitment and Challenge. Good managers actively separate what can be controlled from what can’t, are honest about the distinction and focus on what is within their sphere of control. They ask for help and continue to communicate high standards of employee initiative, accountability and commitment. Good managers use the language of challenge, understanding that organizational growth and resilience happen only if employees are supported in taking on and meeting challenges.

Encourage and reward innovation and creative problem solving. Linear thinking, conventional problem-solving and group think are the enemies of organizational resilience. Now is the time to encourage out-of-the box thinking and to make sure that a diversity of opinions and perspectives is expressed. Adversity often gives rise to innovation, with many successful ventures gaining a foothold during a downturn.

Maintain an external focus. In a time of anxiety, fear and stress employees may turn inward, losing valuable opportunities to respond to changing market conditions. During times of adversity it is especially important to reach out and strengthen relationships with clients and customers.

If you follow these guidelines you can do more than help your organization manage the stresses of the current crisis. You can actively combat the denial, withdrawal, and concrete thinking that characterize fragile and brittle organizations. By managing to optimize resilience you can improve your organization’s psychological health, enabling it to respond more effectively to future challenges.

Understanding the Tasks of a Leader in Turbulent Times

The current financial meltdown and economic collapse have created an epidemic of confusion and fear in the workplace and beyond. Net worth has plummeted and so have confidence, security and respect for leaders and institutions.

The responsibility of a leader is to guide an organization, not only financially, but also toward psychological stability. In order to foster a sense of steadiness despite external disruption, it is valuable to examine some of the emotional forces in play and actions to take in order to keep people focused and engaged.

Self-awareness should be your first priority. 

Knowing your own emotional responses to risk, uncertainty and danger is essential for successfully leading an organization during upheaval. The current crisis can trigger very personal memories and fears of trauma and loss, with unintended behavioral consequences. Echoes of earlier catastrophes can lead to withdrawal at the very times you need to be most available to others.

At the other extreme, leaders who lack selfawareness can create toxic organizational environments when they turn the pressure they feel into angry, demanding behavior with members of their senior team.

Demonstrate empathy in the broadest sense. 

It is important both to recognize and acknowledge what people in your organization are experiencing. While not all the problems caused by stress can be fixed, you can start by demonstrating an understanding that the pain is real. When behavioral problems surface, remind yourself to filter them through your understanding of individual and organizational stresses. Your empathy will guide you toward providing what people need most right now—your availability, regular communication and a plan for the way forward.

Create a sense of urgency without breeding fear.

Now more than ever, organizations need everyone’s commitment and willingness to problem-solve and innovate. If a staff is swamped by fear and uncertainty, capacities for thought and productive action will shut down. Communication is your most powerful tool for limiting adverse emotional reactions and keeping people engaged. The frequency and timing of communication, as well as its content, is critical. Your staff wants to hear from you frequently and regularly. They will be tuning in for a clear and honest accounting of what you see and the actions you will take. Especially in times of crisis, they appreciate straight talk and are turned off by unemotional “corporate speak.” Also, pay attention to the timing of your communications. Giving too much nonspecific advance information about the austerity measures to come can breed toxic reactions—nobody functions well with the sword of Damocles hanging over them.

Demonstrate a commitment to the growth and development of the organization’s talent in bad times as well as good. 

You can model engagement by giving people the thoughtful, individualized feedback they need. Affirm your stars; they need to know their value and their role in the organization’s future. Hold up a mirror to poorer performers and challenge them to improve in critical areas. The best managers earn their staff ’s respect and gratitude even when delivering tough messages. If you give the proper time and attention to managing and recruiting talent, your organization will be better positioned in the marketplace when recovery begins.

Assert personal and organizational core values. 

People want leaders to point them consistently toward what’s most important about the organization’s mission, operating principles and codes of conduct. This is a time for pruning and refining your business and for strengthening its core. It is also a time to make sure that your behavior aligns with the values you espouse. Your integrity is now more than ever a critical component of your leadership, so make sure that if you are asking others to sacrifice that you are also doing your share. Finally, remember that how you handle the current turbulence will have a powerful long-term impact on your leadership credibility. Success in facing these tough tasks will also have a long-term impact on your own growth as a leader. The very culture of business may well be moving into a period of restructuring, in which roles, processes, values and priorities will be refashioned. This will present important opportunities for you. Don’t go it alone. Strengthen your network and reach out to those who can help you. Check your own denial or emotional reactions; seek and be open to feedback.

From No Job to New Job

Like anyone who has lost a job, CEOs who part ways with associations are often left wondering what’s next and hoping the experience will not darken their future job prospects. But for some, rebounding is not as difficult as you might think.

For Craig Fuller, the end came in 2006. During more than six years, Fuller had been the CEO of the National Association for Chain Drug Stores, which represents retail chain pharmacies and suppliers. He felt he had been successful, especially in influencing the debate on Medicare reform and its implementation.

But when the board wanted to go in a different direction, “it looked like a good time for me to do something else,” Fuller said.

Out of a job, Fuller didn’t despair. Instead, he focused on the things his busy schedule as a CEO would not allow, like flying his Beechcraft Bonanza airplane and sailing in the Caribbean.

Fuller also reconstructed The Fuller Company, his private consulting firm. Having worked in Washington since 1981 in posts ranging from chief of staff to Vice President George H.W. Bush to principal at the public relations firm The Wexler Group, Fuller had no problem finding clients. “The advantage of being in town for a while is you have a lot of friends and a lot of relationships,” he said.

It wasn’t long before some of the firms where Fuller was consulting began recruiting him. In 2007, when the communications and public relations firm APCO Worldwide asked him to be executive vice-president, he accepted. He had been working for himself for only a year.

“I’ve always operated under the theory that as you close one door another one opens and another one after that,” said Fuller, who has recently been tapped by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association as its next CEO.

For association CEOs, the door often closes sooner than they would hope. The average tenure for a trade group chief executive is just over six years, according to AssociationIntel, an online database of associations, leader and salary information. Because of today’s short tenures, it is important for CEOs to prepare an exit strategy, say professional job coaches, recruiters and CEOs who have successfully rebounded.

Gone are the days when CEOs spend an entire career at one association, Fuller said. Just like CEOs in the private sector, it’s become common to see turnover in five to eight years, he said. “Boards change. The people who hired you rotate out and new people come in. You always have to be prepared.”

Steve Axelrod, an executive consultant and job coach in New York City, often consults with both nonprofit and for-profit CEOs who find themselves out of a job. Not all of them fare as well as Fuller, but many do, he said.

Axelrod says it’s important for a CEO to find a “healthy narrative” about why the job didn’t work out and to focus on what’s next instead of dwelling on the past. “Losing a job or moving from job to job is not as much of a stigma as it used to be,” he said. “A key to surviving is having the presence of mind to realize that this is one chapter in my life and there will be other chapters.”

That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy. Charlie Ingersoll, a senior client partner at the executive search firm Korn/Ferry International, said recruiters are leery about prospects who have left on less than stellar terms. It’s not something a CEO should try to spin or hide, he said. “We are going to do due diligence so we are going to know about it,” he said.

Job candidates who left their former jobs under a dark cloud should be ready to take some of the responsibility, he said, because in all breakups, there are two sides to the story, and usually everybody is a little wrong.

During interviews, Ingersoll says former CEOs should not present themselves as victims. If they truly did something wrong, he thinks they might benefit from a position lower on the totem pole. “There are people who fumble, so to speak,” he said. “Sometimes they need to go back to being a senior staff member someplace.”

One way to avoid the fallout is to know what you are getting into before you take a job. In 2003, Lynn Nicholas was excited to be tapped to lead the American Diabetes Association. But she quickly learned it was a bad fit. Nicholas thought she would be directing policy, but the biggest portion of the job was fundraising, which “is not my skill set,” she said.

Nicholas, who had a trade association background, said she also did not like working for a patient advocacy group, where passionate volunteers want to have a hand in the daily machinery of the organization. “They want to be involved in the day-to-day aspects of everything, from what hotel a meeting is held at, to what is being served for dinner,” she said.

In 2006, the association released Nicholas from her three-year contract. Even though she didn’t like the job, losing it hurt. “On a verypersonal level, for a short while, it made me feel like I had been a failure,” she said. “It made me question my potential and my ability.”

For the first time since 1976, Nicholas said she was looking for a job instead of fielding offers from recruiters. The situation made her reassess her strengths and what she wanted out of her career. It would only take nine months before she was working again.

In 2007, the CEO search committee for the Massachusetts Hospital Association chose Nicholas. During her interview, Nicholas’s short tenure at American Diabetes Association came up. “I was very transparent about it and honest,” she said. “I said ‘I know myself better now. I’m a better and stronger leader because of the experience.'”

Joe Eaton is a Washington, D.C.-based writer.

Tips for professional rebounding

Whether a job loss comes from outright dismissal or a more gentle invitation to leave, executive coach Steve Axelrod has these suggestions to make the most of the situation:

  • Take the opportunity to reflect and learn about yourself. Develop a complete narrative about who you are and your strengths and weaknesses.
  • You will feel a range of emotions including anger, shame, guilt and rage. That’s normal. But try to avoid self-pity and withdrawal. It will get you nowhere.
  • Find your support network or personal “board of directors.” People usually think family first, but sometimes spouses and other family members are just as stressed out and confused by your job loss as you are. Look to professional colleagues as well.
  • Activate and build your network. This is primary. Your job now is to look for a new job. The key to finding one is working your network.
  • Talk to associates and tell them what you are looking for. No one is going to give you a job unless they know you want one.