By Sander A. Flaum
Life has a way of throwing obstacles in our paths, including an unexpected job loss. Sander Flaum, author of the new book The Best Thing That Could Ever Happen to You, offers help and hope to executives who suddenly find themselves on the outside looking in.
One of the lesser-known things about the pharmaceutical industry is that it's a small world. During my career, I’ve had a chance to work with some of the best in the business—people responsible for developing life-enhancing and often life-extending drugs. People I’m proud to call friends.
So when a tsunami of corporate acquisitions swept through pharma in the mid-2000s, I felt the effects personally. Wall Street loved pharma’s volatility, but for my friends in C-Suite positions, there was no joy. For the first time in the course of careers that read like a Horatio Alger “rags to riches” novel, many were facing unemployment. One day, I’d call on a SVP of Marketing with a big idea, and the next morning I’d open the Wall Street Journal and read that his company was a merger target, meaning his job was toast.
Don’t get me wrong; he didn’t need sympathy. Unlike many downsized workers, he'd get to keep his house. His kids could go to college. But it still hurt. Losing your job hits you in the gut. He and others like him had been winners all their lives. They had no clue that someday their brains, talents, and hard work might not be enough.
There was a time I got a call from a CEO who was lucky enough to be surviving his division’s divestiture to another company. He was going to the new company, unlike most of his managers. But because he cared about his team, he asked me to come in and talk to them as a group. He knew I had connections to them—some had been clients, others, colleagues at previous jobs, and a few were former students from my Leadership Forum at Fordham University Graduate School of Business. I agreed, but I didn’t know quite what to say. What I did know was they sure didn’t need a “Big Idea” for selling a new dermatology product.
Then I thought back to my days at Lederle Laboratories (now Pfizer) when I believed that anyone who gave his or her word actually meant it. I had been rising rapidly, and in recognition of my effort I was told I was a lead candidate for General Manager of Marketing and Sales if my team could meet a series of sales goals. We busted hump, working unbelievably hard. And we succeeded. Then I was pulled aside for a chat. I was going to be passed over. The big job would go to someone else. And while I was not losing my job after 18 years, I knew I’d never be comfortable there again.
For weeks I was consumed with indignation. I won’t go over all of the feelings I experienced, but you can imagine. Finally, I decided to get another job. The CEO of an ad agency told me his plan was to retire soon and I’d have his job if I delivered. Once again, I delivered, and guess what? He decided he was so happy now, he’d keep working.
But this time, I was prepared. Channeling my previous experience, I calmly reset my goals and began looking again. Third time was the charm. I found my dream job as CEO of the Robert A. Becker advertising agency (now Havas Health) and went on to build it to #2 in the global pharma business.
Why did I share these experiences with this group of wonderful men and women who were being downsized? I wanted to illustrate that the loss of one’s job could actually be a great opportunity to break through to even greater heights. Our culture has dozens of clichés for this idea: “When one door closes, another one opens.” “Every cloud has a silver lining.” “It’s always darkest before the dawn.” These sound nice, but these people didn’t need platitudes; they needed help.
To best serve these soon-to-be-adrift executives, we held a series of meetings (both in groups and in private) to unhinge them from their anger and disappointment. We shared with them the advice we had gathered from recruiters and headhunters about the best way back to work for recently (and not so recently) laid-off execs. What success stories had they witnessed? What pitfalls had they seen? What about people who just hated their jobs and were miserable, but felt they had to stick it out?
I can testify that time—even just a little time, as we learned, heals. For most in the group, we saw that once they and their empathetic manager, my client, acknowledged their feelings, one by one they began to move past the shock and get immersed in job searches and interviews. I soon began hearing what became a familiar refrain: “At first it was a nightmare, but now I realize it was the best thing that could have happened to me.”
I also began to hear, “Sander, you really need to write a book about this.”
I’m not a philosopher. I write about business innovation and leadership. I write books about challenges we all face. When I write, I’m thinking as a mentor. So I wrote The Best Thing That Could Ever Happen to You…How a Career Reversal Can Reinvigorate Your Life with this group in mind, professionals who suffer a career reversal and want to get back on the horse and ride again. I also wrote it for the sad souls who hate their jobs and know there’s something better waiting for them, but who need a kick in the pants to just get up and go.
Remember: you’re still the one in charge and you can make the next stage in your life “the best thing that ever happened to you.”
Learn more at these AMA seminars:
Improving Your Project Management Skills: The Basics for Success
Moving Ahead: Breaking Behavior Patterns that Hold You Back
About the Author(s)
Sander A. Flaum is Principal, Flaum Navigators, and Chairman, Fordham Leadership Forum, Fordham University Graduate School of Business Administration. Contact him at [email protected]