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Strategies to Overcome Professional Setback and Define Success on Your Own Terms

By Andrea Redmond and Patricia Crisafulli

In life, no one gets off this planet unscathed. Whether personal or professional, setbacks will happen. How well someone makes a comeback, however, depends upon several factors, from resilience to defining success according to your terms. The good news is that these qualities and skills can be acquired and learned, and with a support system become even more effective.

In today’s world, awareness of professional setbacks—the loss of a job whether due to layoffs or being fired or asked to resign—is increasing, from high profile executives losing their jobs to layoffs and job loss for all levels of workers. It doesn’t matter whether you work in a small company, large corporation, on a factory line, or in a corner office, leaving a job not of your own accord is one of the most difficult challenges most people face.

Even some of the nation’s most well known CEOs who were asked to resign, often for reasons beyond their control, were caught completely off guard. Two such leaders are David Neelman, founder and former CEO of JetBlue Airways, and Jacques Nasser, former president and CEO of Ford Motor Company.

When Neelman was asked by his board to resign in May 2007, following weather-related delays that stranded passengers on the tarmac—an unfortunate event that was beyond Neeleman’s control, but for which he took responsibility as the CEO—he called the move “shocking.” “I felt like I was sucker-punched,” Neeleman describes.

Nasser, who was president and CEO of Ford Motor Company from 1999 until 2001, was asked to step down as the auto industry faced challenges due to a souring economy. After thirty years with the company, his leadership suddenly came to an end. “It was a huge surprise,” he says simply.

Both executives, however, were able to make very successful comebacks. After JetBlue, Neeleman decided to take his idea for a regional air carrier with a high degree of customer service to a new market—Brazil—where he found the highly successful Azul Linhas Aéreas Brasileiras. In time, Nasser went on to become an executive partner in the highly successful private equity firm One Equity Partners, and today is chairman of BHP Billiton, the world’s largest natural resources company.

How did they make their comebacks? Although all leaders have strategies and philosophies that are unique to them, common themes emerge that can lead not only to a comeback, but potentially an even better outcome than ever anticipated.

1) Understand that often it’s not about you. Professional setbacks often occur because a company is in the midst of a transition. A division may be closed down or pared back, which results in layoffs. Or a new CEO has been brought in who now wants his/her own team. Being let go may not be about you or your performance at all. Although the pain and disappointment are yours, you are not the only one who has endured this kind of setback. You are not alone. Find the peace that comes with “I did my best;” learn whatever lessons there are to be learned, embrace change, and move on.

2) Take some time off and think about what you want. This step is often the hardest for people, particularly because of financial worries or concerns about when you will get your next job. But if you try to transition too fast you may be tempted to jump at the first opportunity that comes along instead of choosing where you want to go. Taking even a short break for discernment will help you stage a better and stronger comeback. Even if the break has to be only overnight, make sure that in your downtime you take some time for some real self-reflection. What’s important to you now, time or money? Do you thrive in a large organization or small organization? How have your dreams changed? Although this event was done to you, you are still the one who decides now.

3) Rally your allies. Whether friends, family members, or close associates, your allies are the ones who will help you through the transition and find your way forward. It may very well be through them and their connections that you begin to network your way into a new position.

4) What made you successful before will make you successful again. Just as your unique talents led to your previous success, these abilities will help you achieve your career goals in the future. Know what these qualities are. Own your past accomplishments. This process will help you communicate the value you bring to your next employer.

5) Be open to new possibilities. Your next position after a setback may be on the same path, or you may see your transition as an opportunity to pursue another career track. What is it that you’ve always wanted to do but never allowed yourself the opportunity to explore? Maybe now is the time to try something new. What do you want Act II of your life to look like?

6) Don’t be limited by someone else’s definition of success. You are in charge of your own success. What that looks like and feels like is up to you. Don’t be limited by believing that success is only achievable if you repeat the past. The future is wide open, and it’s very possible that—even in spite of a setback—in your comeback, the best is yet to be.

Even if you have faced a professional setback in the past year, whether or not it was in your control, you can take control of how you recover. Reflect on your next steps, build your support system of allies, remain open to new possibilities and define success for yourself. You might be surprised at the comeback you make.

Read other articles and learn more about Andrea Redmond and Patricia Crisafulli.

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