Crystal Hyde is an executive coach and principal at Scout Public Affairs.
Late last year, the Toronto Maple Leafs dropped a bombshell by suddenly firing head coach Mike Babcock. When the news broke, Brian Burke, former NHL GM turned hockey commentator, said, “I feel bad for Mike. It’s his first time being fired.” Burke himself had been at the receiving end of firings during his NHL career and clearly connected, through his own experience, that it’s always about what’s best for the team and it is all part of the business of hockey. In fact, it’s part of business in general. As an executive coach, sometimes I am the person clients call first as the shock of being let go washes over them, and I can tell you it’s not an easy time. But there are ways to make the transition easier.
I knew an executive who accepted a career-changing position across the country, an opportunity with a big title, clear mandate and salary to match. The executive set out determined to deliver and make her employer confident it had made the right choice. After moving her family, bonding with her colleagues and, through hard work, achieving the goals she was hired to meet, she was invited into the CEO’s office. She was told she did a great job and that her time with that organization was finished. Stunned, confused and with a deflated ego, she moved home uncertain of her next step.
From the employer’s perspective, it had hired her to achieve specific objectives for which it didn’t have a clear timeline. The plan was clear and made good business sense. From the employee’s perspective, good work had been rewarded with a pink slip. It was a hard pill to swallow and it took some time to reorient the high and low of this whirlwind career move, but in the end the employee had elevated her career, had great experience and proved her work was valuable.
Sometimes, we need to take the long view and realize that being “let go” does not automatically equal poor performance. Sometimes, it means that a particular opportunity has come to an end and another is on the horizon.
My phone rang one morning and one of my clients was on the line. He was clearly in shock. His usual direct businesslike tone had been replaced by a quiet “they let me go.” While the news sunk in and spread among family and former colleagues, he was peppered with questions big and small and he was struggling with how to answer these inquiries.
Our first course of action was to define a number of key messages, by deciding what he was willing to share and what was unnecessary or unwise to share. The fact that he was let go was news and information he could not change or control, but the details of his conversation with the company and his package were no one’s business but his own. As far as his next chapter, he did not know what that looked like, so it was important to frame a message or two around what his immediate next steps would be to give him the time and space to make some decisions.
When you are at the top of your career, you can feel invincible having earned your way there and dedicated yourself to your post, your team and the success of your business. Having it all ripped away is a massive ego bruiser, but it’s not uncommon. In the business world, often executives who have been let go don’t talk about it openly, making the experience a secret that is papered over on their résumé and it’s easy to see why. When it happens to you, the depth of the pain and personal affront can take anyone, even the most confident and hard-working executive, off guard.
One high-flying executive had travelled the world, was smart as a whip and had an adoring team, so when it all ended, he told no one outside of family for months. He wasn’t directly lying, although the sidestepping was certainly omitting the truth and a clear sign of his feelings of shame. In time, he would learn this type of departure at his level was not unique to him and he would soon find an exciting and appealing new posting.
It is difficult for people at any level to accept an unexpected departure from their work, particularly when elevated titles are considered indicators of success. The best way to handle these situations is to recognize that losing your job is not always related to poor performance. There are myriad reasons for these types of departures.
Decide what you want to say about your departure, write it out and then stick to it, because there is a new chapter after this blip in your career and you want to keep doors open by upholding your professionalism. Lastly, you are not alone and there is more to come for you. As Brian Burke said, “it’s hard your first time,” but it is not uncommon for business swings to shake loose great employees. Take time to come to terms with your new situation, find your footing and get back out there because your value will be seen most clearly if you see it first.
This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.
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