Refactoring Leadership

A geek struggles to become a leader

Thoughts on Getting Fired

I recently read this article on The Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/05/my-secret-shame/476415/ . While I am not one of the majority discussed in this article*, the ideas about the shame revolving in talking about money were not lost on me. I've been thinking about another secret shame that we are not supposed to discuss: the shame of being fired.


In March of this year I got fired for the first time in my professional career. Not "laid off", not "right-sized", just good ole "This isn't working out so we're getting rid of you.", fired.  The actual details are seldom up for discussion for legal reasons, but as I began the dance of having meetings and interviews, I realized there is tremendous stigma around even simply admitting that there was an abrupt change and I wasn't the one who initiated it. I have collected a few thoughts around this:


Given the ever-increasing recognition of the power of Culture in business, it should shock no one to admit that not every person is a fit for every culture. Saying that there was a lack of alignment should be accepted as a serious issue, but not one that means you're an untouchable troublemaker.


Don't try to un-pull the trigger. During my meeting, thousands of thoughts quickly went through my head around how this action wasn't right, how I was doing what I needed to be doing, how much value I was adding, this must be a mistake, etc. No matter how you got there, if you find yourself with HR in the room looking at walking papers, the time for negotiating is past. Walk out respectfully with your dignity as intact as you can.


I loved the end of this article (https://plus.google.com/110981030061712822816/posts/AaygmbzVeRq) about presenting to Jeff Bezos, particularly where he surveys the room and realizes how terrified the VPs are of losing their position; they wouldn't laugh, smile, or offer an original thought until they were given permission by The Dread Pirate Bezos. If, like me, you agree that that sounds like a horrible way to live, then you have to accept that by taking strong positions and defending them, you may eventually get fired if the organization doesn't come around to your way of thinking. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Don't give in to the scarcity mentality that you'll never have it this good someplace else.


Resist bitterness, especially public bitterness. Letting bitterness leak out just makes you look like poison. The first thing I did was go to Facebook and LinkedIn to let my network know that I was suddenly on the market, and wish the company and the senior leadership well. Despite irreconcilable differences in perspective, the business was undeniably on a vastly improved trajectory compared to the previous owners. I have no desire to see anyone, let alone an entire business fail. Don't embrace the scarcity mentality that someone has to fail for someone else to succeed: find your success out there.


Resist gossip and ask that your contacts do the same. This one was hard for me. Obviously you have to be curious as to how things are going and what's being said about you. Don't be, nothing healthy can come from it. After a while I had to just gently ask my friends and colleagues to stop sharing their concerns with me or asking for my advice regarding the company or specific efforts I had been involved in. While this is a normal activity among friends in the same line of work, it seriously interferes with a clean break and your ability to focus on healing and looking  for what's next for you. Let it go.


Don't unfriend, unfollow, or blacklist people. Again, don't do things that make you look like a bitter crazy person. Don't send people the message that just because they're not on your team anymore they have no value as a human. 


Look for the lesson: There may be a lesson. If you are not naturally an introspective person, this may be a wake-up call that you need to start evaluating yourself and try to gain the ability to self-correct. If you are naturally an introspective person, you may need to think about what has been missing from your habit of self-inspection. You may decide that you had improperly weighted the relative importance of priorities, that you had misjudged the political landscape, or just said the wrong thing at the wrong time. Search for the teaching moments.


Give yourself permission to be right: This is a hard one, and I hope no one misinterprets this point as arrogance (or self-delusion). There may be lessons learned that you can internalize and learn from moving forward. There may not be


Give yourself permission to be hurt: Let's face it, in America our sense of self worth is often closely tied to working, making money, and what our title is. Even if you've been wise enough to save enough that this doesn't hurt you financially, it will probably hurt you emotionally for many of the same reasons I listed  under "don't try to un-pull the trigger." No matter how appropriate the action may be, it's going to affect you, and that's OK.


How much stigma is associated with being let go? It took me five months to finally press "publish" on this article. 


*I have, however, made it a point to be a little more open when discussing money with close friends and family, to do my part to normalize these discussions.

Comments (2) -

  • Jay

    9/15/2016 7:17:39 PM | Reply

    From a geek turned leader: "If you haven't been fired, you have not taken enough risk." If you are just punching the clock this does not apply to you but as a leadership career matures and a leader drives more and more significant change and transformation the risk of being at odds with other leadership increases. The word fired has a lot of negative connotation, it is too strongly attached to the concept of underperformance. At a leadership level it is more about a difference in direction that cannot be resolved and for the benefit of company and leader it is best to part company before it becomes a performance problem on either side. It really doesn't mean much more than that unless you string a bunch of those situations together on your resume.

  • matt

    9/16/2016 2:04:46 PM | Reply

    You never know what you are getting into until around a month being there. Sometimes I think there needs to be a one month trial so you can work but still have other jobs on stand by if after a month its not working out as well as either side thought

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