How to recover from a professional disaster

High-profile sackings and public scandals don't have to be the end of your story, says Teach First founder Jo Owen.

by Jo Owen
Last Updated: 16 Dec 2019

At the highest level, business is ruthless. There’s many a top flight career grounded by high-profile failure, an unceremonious sacking or a salacious scandal. Most of them are predictable, with the benefit of hindsight. 

At the time, it’s different. Suddenly, we are no longer in control of events and disaster strikes. These are the moments which make and break leaders. Some vanish, some survive and some even thrive in crisis: they bounce back stronger than ever. 

The leaders who overcome professional disaster instinctively do four things that help them succeed.

Get support. Just as leadership is a team sport, so is survival. Don’t go it alone. It helps if you have a life outside work, because if your entire life is your business, it is hard to get support when you part ways. If you have supportive friends and family, that helps. 

For instance the CRO (Chief Risk Officer) of a bank heard that he was about to get fired and that his face would be all over the media as a result. Being CRO, he said, is like being Minister for Banana Skins: you are the fall guy when things go wrong. 

Getting fired in public is devastating personally and professionally. In his words: "knowing that you have a strong and supportive family makes all the difference." Professionally he reached out to his network for support and advice, and hired a coach.

Cultivate brutal optimism. Vice Admiral Stockdale enjoyed the hospitality of the "Hanoi Hilton" as a POW in the Vietnam War: room service took the form of beatings, meagre rations and constant psychological pressure. He noted that optimists who simply hoped for the best were most likely to die. They hoped to be out by Christmas, New Year, Easter, Independence Day, Thanksgiving: as each fantasy date came and went they slowly lost hope and gave up.

Brutal optimism is about facing the facts, and acting on them with the clear intent of overcoming adversity. Stockdale had no control over sleeping, eating or beatings. He knew the last battle was for his beliefs, and so that was the battle he resolved to fight and win. Brutal optimism means being clear about your goal and how you will get there, and having the determination to achieve it.

Challenge your thinking. When disaster strikes, your internal chatter can turn ugly. You will hear yourself saying things like "No one, never, always, everyone, nothing…" Once you start thinking that no one ever helps and nothing works, you will find plenty of evidence to confirm your thinking. 

As soon as your self-talk turns to absolute statements like that, challenge it: find some evidence that maybe some people do help sometimes. Finding the silver lining often paves the way to finding solutions, or at least starting conversations which lead to solutions. If you see no light in the darkness, you can not escape the darkness. 

Remember you always have choices, even if they are uncomfortable choices. The two most important choices are about how you feel and how you act. Feeling lousy when faced with a humiliating setback is natural but not a legal requirement. The Royal Marines have a value of "humour in the face of adversity": if you can laugh at unprintable jokes in the face of death, it helps. 

In the words of the fired CRO, "Every morning you have a choice to get up as Mr Happy or Mr Grumpy." (Or the Little Miss equivalents.) 

Choose well. The second choice is about whether you drive to action or sit back and ruminate on your misfortune. The CRO chose to act: he twice moved halfway round the world to rebuild his career successfully. 

Jo Owen is a social entrepreneur, Founder of Teach First and author of Resilience – 10 habits to thrive in life and work (Pearson), priced £12.99

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