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As 2008 draws to a close, the competition for "Worst Exec of the Year" is probably the hottest it's been for… well… maybe ever. From Daniel Mudd and Richard Syron at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to the ever-loveable Dick Fuld presiding over the demise of Lehman Brothers, and all the way to the top of the Big Three in Detroit (whose execs were all still in their jobs last time I checked), it’s certainly been a bumper year for followers of managerial indiscretion and corporate folly.
While some have taken time out from weeping over their 401(k)'s to enjoy a little schadenfreude at the demise of some of the titans of their respective industries, one can't help but wonder where some of these guys -- is it just me or are they all guys? -- can go from here. When you're reduced to selling your art collection to make ends meet, or hoping that the company you've (mis)managed is around long enough for you to cash out any remaining stock options, you've got to start wondering how to get back on the career horse.
While it's bad enough getting fired from a job, losing one in the full glare of the public eye greatly increases the difficulty of finding a new one. It's tough to get an interview, after all, when your resume's landing on a desk beside a newspaper with your picture on the front cover. Fortunately, there is plenty of precedent for top ranking executives being ousted from their positions in public (and sometimes embarrassing) situations, and even a couple of examples of those same execs making a career comeback.
Looking on the bright side
Of course, one of the first things any deposed exec can take comfort from is the fact that it could always be worse: many of the most famous examples of large-scale failure tend to end up with the CEO in question spending not a little time behind bars. Worldcom CEO Bernard Ebbers was sentenced to 25 years in 2005 for his role in the largest corporate bankruptcy in history. That's one year more than was meted out to one-time Enron CEO and Chairman Jeff Skilling, while a similar sentence was also mooted for fellow convicted CEO and Chairman Kenneth Lay, before his untimely death in 2006.
While I'm not going to point the criminal accusation finger at anyone, even those execs that do end up doing some time can take heart from the knowledge that it is possible to resurrect a career afterwards. While Martha Stewart isn't exactly a conventional CEO, she does serve as a stellar example of how to rehabilitate a career that could easily have ended with her sentencing for insider trading. And if the CEO's at the Big Three feel high-profile at the moment, they can at least reflect on the fact that they've only recently become household names. Martha was living with a much higher level of recognition long before her sentencing, meaning her fall from grace, and subsequent climb back, was all the harder for having happened entirely in the public eye.
Keep your options open
In terms of a CEO who got famous for running a company before losing the job amidst the glare of publicity, we need look no further than Apple's Steve Jobs for guidance in career resurrection. Fired in 1985 from the company he founded, Jobs regrouped and formed another couple of ventures that turned out to be mildly successful—Pixar and NeXT—before returning to lead Apple again in 1997. Being ousted from the executive chair certainly didn't hurt Jobs' career in the long run.
The Jobs example suggests that a key piece of advice for recently-deposed CEO's and executives is to have plenty of irons in the fire. One CEO who presided over a massive bankruptcy before being shown the door—Conseco's Gary C. Wendt—had other business interests in India before even accepting the position that made him infamous, and he continues with other activities to date. Assuming that a bio at AEI Speakers Bureau offering his services as a speaker is accurate, that is. (It also conveniently glosses over his time at Conseco—a luxury that time, and 15 years at GE Capital affords, and a lesson in reframing your resume that any job-seeker could learn from).
So while losing a job may seem like the end of world, and losing a top one publicly even more so, it's important to keep in mind that there's always a way to channel your hard-won experiences into something valuable. Getting back into the C-suite might not be easy, but it's not impossible. And it's by no means the only option out there.
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