While making a mad dash to board an airport train last week, I ran into Stephen —literally ran into him — as we both jockeyed to squeeze ourselves in among the other harried travelers. We had not seen each other since our days as middle managers when we both worked for the same large multinational firm. Stephen was incredibly fun back in those days, as well as ambitious, hard working and among the most brilliant men I knew. Anyone who worked with him for more than 30 minutes could tell that they were in the presence of genius and that Stephen was going straight to the top. His coworkers would joke that they’d all be reporting to him one day.
I couldn’t get over how great Stephen looked. He had that same glow about him, that same mischievous gleam in his eyes that told you he had a lot going on in that impressive brain of his. After exchanging a warm embrace and inquiring about the lives of each other’s families, I asked Stephen how things were going at the company, where he was now a vice president. They’d had some recent product recalls and sales quota challenges that I heard he’d been wrestling with and I wondered if the dust was finally settling. As the train doors opened to our terminal, Stephen told me, “I’ve been fired.”
“What????” I asked, the utter disbelief undoubtedly etched on my face.
He repeated, “I’ve been fired.”
As luck would have it, we both had a two-hour layover, which was plenty of time to sort out the details of this shocking news. Once firmly ensconced in our favorite airport lounge, I began to ask Stephen what had happened and what he’d learned from the experience. Of course, he’d been provided with a nice exit package by the company, commensurate with 16 years of loyalty, and would be much better off than most people who lose a job. Nevertheless, I could tell that he was wounded by the experience of a loving a company that no longer wanted him. Stephen shared five leadership lessons the experience has taught him:
“I was most struck by the people that I chose to mentor and develop who never connected with me after I left the company,” Stephen said. “I’ve started to figure out who my real friends are.” His take home lesson was that he could have done a better job at vetting talent and identifying who was vying to work with him merely for what he could do for them. “When people operate that way, they’re probably not going to be great developers of others, or make the best decisions for the company. Ultimately, their objectives are self-serving and that’s never good for business,” Stephen reflected.
For every person that Stephen expected would stay in touch, there were twenty more who reached out that he barely knew. Each of them wrote letters of thanks for the contributions that Stephen had made to their learning and growth. “I was shocked that people way down on the organization chart were writing to thank me. I’d been a role model for many people and never even knew it. It was a humbling experience,” he said.
“I didn’t realize how tired I was until I slowed down long enough for the fatigue to catch up,” he shared. “During the last year, I’ve eaten 200 dinners on an airplane somewhere over the Atlantic. It’s a crazy way to live when you think about it!” Convinced that he could have done a better job of managing his schedule and insisting on time for exercise and proper meals, Stephen is now committed to addressing a lifestyle that has led to newly discovered health issues. He’ll make very different decisions about managing his schedule in the next job he takes on.
“In retrospect, there is nothing that I learned after losing my job that I couldn’t have discovered while I was still in it if I’d been more disciplined about making time for reflection a priority in my schedule,” he said. “It’s easy to get drawn into the executive lifestyle of meeting after meeting and decision after decision, without actually taking time to think and time to observe what’s going on around you. I would have been even better at what I did if I reconnected with myself more often, and focused more on the ‘why’ of what I was doing than on ‘how’ it was going to get done.”
“Losing a job that you love can really knock the wind out of your sails. It brings you face-to-face with all of the mistakes you’ve made, all of the people you’ve overlooked or taken for granted. I’m not proud of that, but I’d be even more disappointed if I didn’t learn from it, “ Stephen reflected. So, taking the lessons from this disappointment has helped Stephen reinvent himself and commit to becoming an even more effective, empathic executive. “ You can achieve huge goals and still honor the people who helped you do it. Those are not mutually exclusive objectives,” he said.
The two-hour layover was coming to a close and we heard our flights announced in the lounge. As we hustled out to the busy terminal towards our adjacent gates I struggled to keep pace with Stephen’s determined steps. “Where are you off to now?” I asked, nearly out of breath.
“I’m heading to a meeting for a non-profit that I’ve started,” he replied, as he maneuvered into his boarding line. “We’re raising our first two million dollars to fight illiteracy in the inner city. Gonna wipe it out!”
I couldn’t help but smile at the familiar gleam that was back in his eyes.
“I have no doubt that you will, Stephen. No doubt.”
This article by Alaina Love was originally published in SmartBrief on Leadership in October, 2015.