Oct 5, 2020 | Leadership

The CEO’s eyes were filled with tears. I was sitting across from him in his office, bracing myself for the news he was struggling to share. “I just made a deal to sell the company, and most of my team will be replaced” he said. “They’re going to take this very hard. I feel like I’ve let everyone down.”

After a brief pause, I said, “This decision will certainly have an impact on your team. You’ve set a big wave into motion. But how each person responds to that wave is up to them. Some will let it wash over them and they will spin out of control for a while. But others will catch the wave and ride it to new heights. How each person reacts to that wave is ultimately up to them.”

In our years of research and consulting work, we’ve met executives who have been fired, laid off, or passed over for promotion. We’ve ridden with them through mergers, restructurings, and competition for top jobs. Regardless of how the wave was put into motion, we’ve found that one lesson is pretty universal: Even a dramatic career setback can become a springboard to success if you respond in the right way.

Here are three steps to help you rebound from a setback:

Step 1: Move from denial to acceptance

No matter how resilient they are, most executives process news like this by working through the five stages of grief. They start with denial that turns into anger. Next, they bargain over their fate, then fall into a period of depression. For many, it can take years to make it to the acceptance stage.

That’s partly because high achievers tend to have attribution bias. That is, they take too much credit for their successes and assign too much external blame for their failures. It’s a survival mechanism that helps to protect their self-esteem. Unfortunately, it also prevents learning and growth. The next time you suffer a setback, don’t get stuck in the grief cycle.  Take action to explore how you contributed to what went wrong. Gather honest feedback from others and critically evaluate if you were culpable in the derailment.

Step 2: Look for meaning in your setback

Once you’ve accepted reality, you’ll be ready to turn your loss into a win. Take advantage of the opportunity to do some deep thinking about who you are and what you want. Chances are, you’ve been climbing the career ladder for so long that you’ve gotten really good at doing something you don’t even like.

Many people fall into careers because of parental pressure or because they needed a job to pay off student debt. The Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that Americans spend over 37% of our lives at work. Over a working lifetime, that adds up to 99,117 hours. Use the power of the pause to allow yourself to look for work that has meaning beyond a paycheck.

Step 3: Move forward with confidence

After you identify possible next steps, it’s time to pick one. Admittedly, this can be a little frightening, especially if you’re venturing into unknown career territory. Reimagining your professional identity is one thing; bringing it to life is another. Remember, though, that you haven’t left your skills and experience behind with your last job, and you’ll also bring with you the lessons learned from the setback. You may also have revised your definition of success.

Use a setback as an opportunity to do some serious discovery work, then act with renewed conviction. Move out of the grief cycle and onto a path that will allow you to thrive.

Question: How have you taken advantage of a setback as a setup for a comeback?


Driven by the premise that excellence is the result of aligning people, purpose and performance, Center for Executive Excellence facilitates training in leading self, leading teams and leading organizations. To learn more, subscribe to receive CEE News!



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