“Nobody has ever lived, I daresay, who has not gone through a period when everything seems to have collapsed and when years of work and life seem to have gone up in smoke,” Peter Drucker once wrote. “No one can be spared this experience.”
That said, some people take a hit better than others.
In Drucker’s view, the first step toward demonstrating resilience is keeping your nerve and simply marching on. In this way, he felt, getting fired as a young person can be an invaluable experience, teaching an individual how to take things on the chin and showing that life has plenty of other opportunities to offer. “The lesson is that it’s possible to survive,” he wrote.
For those who are older, Drucker counseled, developing a second career or a parallel career can be a way to find a new, meaningful outlet after suffering a setback—a topic that we’ve explored before.
What are some other secrets for getting back on track? Here are five suggestions from seasoned executives in the business, nonprofit and government sectors.
JAN FIELDS: OWN IT
As president of McDonald’s USA, Jan Fields tried, in the face of resistance from her boss, to introduce a healthier menu to the restaurant chain. In late 2012, in a development that many blamed on the changes that Fields had pushed through, McDonald’s reported its first dip in sales since 2003.
“I always knew if sales go down, I’m done,” she says. “And I was.”
At age 57, after 35 years with McDonald’s, Fields was out of work.
But she says that the experience didn’t leave her disoriented or knocked out. “You know that day is coming,” she says. “Let’s face it: You know it. So what are you going to do about it?”
In Fields’s case, she owned it. She eschewed the customary cover stories for difficult moments like this and refused the suggestion from her boss to call it a “retirement.” “Retirement doesn’t happen on a Friday and you’re done next week,” she says. “I said I left.”
Grin and Bear It
Jan Fields, former president of McDonald’s USA, says that part of bouncing back after a job loss is being honest about it: “Everyone’s going to know why you’re gone and why you’re looking.”
She also didn’t slink away, instead reaching out to work colleagues and making sure to stay in touch with them. “You know how people say that you don’t miss the job, you miss your friends?” she says. “I still see them all the time. Barely a day goes by that I don’t. It’s up to you to maintain those relationships.”
Today, Fields serves on multiple boards and appears regularly as a speaker on health and women’s empowerment. Meanwhile, the menu changes she’d advocated have, in recent years, been adopted and proven successful. Fields wasn’t wrong; she was just early.
To be sure, by the time Fields exited McDonald’s, she had made enough money personally to enjoy choices that others can’t afford. But her candor is something she recommends to all.
“Honesty is a very important part of this process,” she says. “Everyone’s going to know why you’re gone and why you’re looking.”
If it’s because of your mistakes, potential employers are likely to understand, provided you’ve learned from them. If it’s because the job you had was threatening your values, people will appreciate that, too. “You’re in control,” Fields says. “Be careful not to hurt your reputation.”
RICK COLE: DON’T LIVE IN FEAR
Years ago, Rick Cole, widely considered to be one of the most effective public administrators in California, had a conversation with a revered mentor. Early in his career, the man had been fired as city manager of Fresno, Calif., and he told Cole that it was the best thing that had ever happened to him because it freed him from the limits that can come with staying on a conventional path to success. Cole didn’t buy it.
“This sounded like the biggest rationalization of all time,” Cole recalls. “Here was this person I deeply admired for his brains and savvy, and he got himself fired. I thought: That will never happen to me.”
Flash forward to 2012.
Cole at the time was in his ninth year as city manager of Ventura, Calif., about 70 miles northwest of Los Angeles. His original mandate had been to shift the city toward an agenda of smart growth, innovation and an expanded governmental role. But the makeup of the City Council had changed after an election, and a new mayor was determined to focus on the basics of a “cops and concrete” agenda, as Cole describes it.
Cole had hoped to hang on to his post at least until 2016, when Ventura would celebrate its 150th anniversary. But with support from the new Council majority, the mayor told Cole that it was time to discuss his departure.
“I thought I was one of the best city managers in the state, and, if you’re one of the best city managers in the state, you don’t get fired,” Cole says. “I really felt that my career lay in ashes.”
At the same time, the long-ago words of Cole’s mentor came back to him. “If the worst that can happen to you is that you get fired,” he says, “then the best thing that can happen to you is to live without fear.”
After clearing out of his government office, Cole took up a voluntary role as parish administrator of his church, the Mission San Buenaventura, tackling the job, he says, “with gusto and enthusiasm and a fair amount of naïveté”—along with the expectation that this might be his work until he retired. His plan for when his severance ran out was to live on a modest combination of his pension and savings.
Nine months later, however, Cole got a call from Eric Garcetti, the newly elected mayor of Los Angeles, who appointed Cole to the position of deputy mayor in 2013. Two years later, Cole was hired to be city manager of Santa Monica.
The progression underscored to Cole the wisdom of his mentor, whose words upon his firing had once triggered disbelief. “He was right,” says Cole. “The way to live effectively in your personal life and particularly in your professional life is not to worry about getting fired. Instead, focus on what you need to do to serve the greater good.”
EILEEN HEISMAN: TAKE A DEEP BREATH AND TRY AGAIN
When Eileen Heisman became CEO of the National Philanthropic Trust, shortly after the organization’s founding in 1996, her aim was to offer wealthy donors a new and more convenient way to contribute to charity.
They could donate physical assets such as real estate, without liquidating them, take an immediate tax deduction, and then help decide over time where the proceeds would be directed.
In order to cover its overhead, NPT would have to build up its assets quickly. Heisman’s timeline, endorsed by her board, was to secure $100 million in four years.
To raise the money, she embarked upon a schedule of constant travel, attending conferences and trying to cultivate relationships with the hundred most influential players in the field of estate and tax planning. “I was kind of like a wild woman,” she remembers, spending half of her time on the road and taking red-eyes back home to grab as much time as possible with her two children, whom she was raising as a single mother.
For all the effort, though, things weren’t panning out. Three years into the fundraising, Heisman was only 30% of the way to her target, and exhaustion from the pace of travel put her in the hospital.
“I’m a real push-for-success kind of person,” she says. “So the idea that I might have failed was crushing.”
Rather than surrender, though, Heisman gave herself a new deadline that she shared with the board: 18 months to find a different and sustainable model.
As it happened, inspiration came from a partner that had begun working with financial service institutions on donor-advised funds—a vehicle that allows individuals to make a charitable contribution, receive an immediate tax benefit and then recommend grants from the fund over time. Many financial firms were starting to get into this area, but few had much experience or desire to build things from the ground up. That’s where NPT could come in.
Much as a retailer might offer a white-label product, financial institutions could offer clients a donor-advised fund that was, in practice, administered by NPT. A new distribution model was born.
Today, NPT has $6.2 billion in charitable assets under management, and it has made more than $5 billion in grants.
Heisman believes that pausing and rethinking were the keys to overcoming her initial failure. “I was pushed out of one door and forced into another,” she says. “I always call myself the queen of workaround strategies. So the path to your goal was fraught with difficulties. Learn from that and create strategies that acknowledge that—and do something else.”
GEORGE MITCHELL: FOCUS ON WHAT’S IN FRONT OF YOU
In 1974, George Mitchell, then a lawyer who had spent time as an official at the Justice Department and as an aide on Capitol Hill, ran for governor of Maine. He was the early front-runner, propelled by the backing of popular Sen. Edmund Muskie, for whom Mitchell had worked in Washington.
But Mitchell lost anyway—a “disastrous” start to his political career, in the words of the Washington Post.
“I was obviously very disappointed, went through a period of self-doubt, and wondered whether I ever could or would get elected to anything,” he says.
Nevertheless, by 8 a.m. the next morning, with little sleep, Mitchell was back at his desk, practicing law. “I got active as a trial lawyer,” he says. “I tried to expand my range of skills.”
The experience Mitchell gained—driven by the positive attitude he adopted—led him to become a U.S. attorney, then a federal judge and then, when Muskie resigned his Senate seat in 1980, to be appointed by the governor to fill the term. After that, Mitchell ran for the Senate and won. He’d serve for 15 years.
What enabled his political comeback, Mitchell says, was a determination to learn all he could from the opportunities in front him, rather than fretting over the opportunity he’d lost.
“If you spend too much time and mental energy on grandiose plans and implications you might lose your way,” Mitchell says. “You’re better off concentrating on what you’re doing and doing the best you can at it.”
It was this same philosophy that Mitchell employed when, in the mid-1990s, he was asked to broker the Northern Ireland peace process. From the start, things seemed doomed.
I was obviously very disappointed, went through a period of self-doubt, and wondered whether I ever could or would get elected to anything.
Former U.S. Senator
“It was extremely discouraging,” Mitchell says. “These were lengthy, lengthy, highly repetitious negotiations with very little progress.”
Involved in the talks were two governments and 10 political parties, some of which were opposed to Mitchell’s very presence, demanding that he resign or be dismissed. Riots and bombings complicated the effort, and nearly two years went by without any serious signs of progress.
A lawmaker who’d had a reputation for forging bipartisan agreements at home was now at risk of looking ineffectual and unequal to the challenge.
“There were many, many moments of doubt, despair and discouragement,” Mitchell says. “The press routinely asked me—literally almost every day—when I was going to go home, since it was obvious the process had failed.”
Mitchell’s approach to breaking the stalemate was the one he’d long lived by: concentrate on the task at hand rather than on the parts of some master strategy that might have slipped away.
“You’re better off focusing very hard on what it is you’re doing and be alert to opportunities and build them up,” he says.
After about 22 months of seeming futility, small breakthroughs began to emerge. Then in April 1998, the comprehensive Good Friday Agreement was signed. It has, for the most part, kept the peace for the past 20 years.
Bob McDonald, who was once a young platoon leader in the 82nd Airborne Division, says that one key to resilience is staying focused on your purpose in life—not your job title or income.
BOB McDONALD: DON’T CONFUSE YOUR PURPOSE WITH YOUR POSITION
When Bob McDonald was a young platoon leader in the 82nd Airborne Division, one of his assignments was to go up in the plane and check the parachutes of his soliders about to jump out of the door. Every interaction was a matter of life and death.
Later in his career, McDonald would rise to become the CEO of the consumer products giant Procter & Gamble and secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Which role, he asks, was of the greatest significance?
“Too many people end up to responding to social pressures . . . and end up allowing society to dictate success,” he says. “Living a life directed by a purpose leads to a much more fulfilling existence.”
When you do so, McDonald explains, landing a fancy job doesn’t seem quite so important. And losing one doesn’t seem quite so catastrophic.
When McDonald left the Army, he had reached the rank of captain. Now at P&G, he had to start all over again from the bottom.
Over the next 29 years, he rose steadily through the company, becoming CEO in 2009. While P&G’s stock price increased by more than half during his tenure, McDonald faced considerable pressure from investors, and in 2013 he abruptly retired, saying that he feared becoming a distraction.
Although McDonald admitted to stepping away from P&G “earlier probably than I would have cared to,” he reminded himself of his overall purpose: to help others, no matter what job he was in.
“If you measure success based on a title and income, you’re going to go through life disappointed,” he says. “Your purpose is not a position.”
After leaving P&G, McDonald was asked to lead an effort in his adopted home of Cincinnati, helping to revitalize two local landmarks, a museum and a music hall.
Then in 2014, as that project was wrapping up, a scandal erupted at the VA. Employees throughout the federal agency’s massive hospital system had conspired to hide months-long wait times that veterans faced when seeking care. Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned.
Shortly afterward, McDonald learned that he was under consideration by President Obama to be the VA’s new leader. The Senate confirmed him unanimously in July.
McDonald took an energetic approach to his new position, pushing to reduce wait times, raise physician salaries and introduce long-term process changes such as lean management. He also became known for making public his cell phone number and inviting any veteran caught in the bureaucratic maze to give him a call, which was always answered or returned.
While McDonald didn’t solve the VA’s huge set of problems during his 32 months there, he is generally credited with making progress against them. After the 2016 elections, various veterans groups urged that he be kept on by the incoming administration. In any case, when Donald Trump became president, McDonald was again out of a job.
Today, he is taking stock of what’s next and turning his attention to his parents, who are old, and to his grandchildren, who are very young. As always, he says, his constant sense of purpose will be his tonic amid change.
“How do I compare serving 22 million veterans to nurturing my grandchildren?” McDonald asks. “One is obviously very big, but the other is obviously incredibly personal and important. Life is a series of opportunities of starting over again.”*
What will you do on Monday that’s different?
CULTIVATE A PARALLEL CAREER
Develop a side career in the social sector—not only because it’s a great way to make a positive contribution, but because it can buoy you with a sense of meaning and purpose if your regular job takes a really bad turn.
EXPLORE NEW PATHS
If you do find yourself out of job, consider a whole new path by taking a career test—Sokanu is free and is our favorite—that will surface a whole range of jobs that match your skills, interests and values.
FORTIFY YOUR NETWORK
Make a list and systematically reconnect with colleagues, mentors and protégés with whom you’ve lost touch but would surely love to hear from you, and could be valuable to lean on should you ever suffer a career setback.