Sometimes when I look at successful executives, I am disheartened because it all just looks so easy for them. They seem to effortlessly rise up the corporate ladder. They appear to win at everything they do. Whatever they touch seems to turn into gold. The always appear so confident and decisive and poised. It can be daunting to compare what seems to be such a graceful ride for them to what often feels like a roller coaster for me. My guess is that most of you can relate to this feeling. But the more I’ve come to actually spend time with leaders and executives, the more I’ve come to know that this has always been an illusion. Success, as I am learning, is far more an exercise in perseverance than of perfection.
When I look back on my own career journey, I have made some fairly epic mistakes. In fact, I can’t remember a job I had where I didn’t at one time make what I considered in the moment, to be a career ending/limiting blunder. I remember being absolutely mortified by these mistakes and misjudgments. In the early years of my career, I’d react very emotionally and make things worse for myself. But as I matured, I started to learn how to bounce back from mistakes in a much more productive way. I can say, with the benefit of hindsight, that my ability to bounce back from career setbacks has probably been more instrumental to my advancement than just about anything else.
Over the years, I’ve developed four very specific, practical things I do whenever I feel like I’ve just made a big mistake, or suffered some kind of career setback. I can take solace, especially when I’m panicking in the moment, that I have a solid plan in place for bouncing back quickly and coming back stronger than ever.
Most people think career success is reserved for habitual winners. That progression is a pretty straight line of success from beginning to end. They think it looks like this:
But in reality, certainly in my experience, success comes just as frequently to those of us who make mistakes all the time but have learned how to recover effectively. Without question my career trajectory looks much more like this:
The beginning and the end of the career journey are the same, but the path was much more complicated than what it may appear from a distance or on my resume.
The more experience I get managing teams and observing how people handle success and failure, the more I’m convinced that it’s our ability to manage through change and adversity that determines our success in the end. I’ve witnessed firsthand, extremely talented people unable to rise to their full career potential because they couldn’t deal with their own failures.
My guess is if you look around your company you could point to some colleagues who appear to have all the tools but are inexplicably stagnant in their careers. I suspect, if you’re honest with yourself, you could also point to some moments in your own career where you lingered on a failure for too long or exacerbated a mistake to the detriment of your career progression.
This week I wanted to share with you, four things I do whenever I suffer a setback or make a pretty significant career blunder. I take comfort in knowing I have this little playbook ready to go whenever this kind of thing occurs, and that helps me bounce back even faster.
1. Reset and reaffirm your longer term career objective
This one is about resetting your own perspective. It’s about getting back in the right mindset and trying to take a bigger picture, objective view of your situation within the larger context of your career. I realize, when you’re in the moment, when you’re reeling from an error or misjudgment or negative review, that it can seem impossible to do this. But it’s critical to take one step back, and view the situation with perspective.
What helps me is to draw a little graph like the one above with a crooked line going up and to the right. The bottom left is the beginning of my career and the top right is my career end goal. Then I plot my most recent blunder wherever it belongs in the middle of the graph (see above). I find that really helps me get over my mistake and get focused on the next upswing in my career trajectory.
Next time you’re feeling down in the dumps from some bad feedback or some other setback, draw this graph, plot your mistake and refocus on the upswing that is right around the corner.
2. Make a personal brand recovery plan
If you’ve done some damage to your reputation or to your relationships with a boss or colleagues, or if you’ve suffered a negative performance review, it can be helpful to put together a quick personal brand recovery plan. Here’s a blog I wrote about how to recover from a negative review if you’d like to get deeper into that scenario specifically. Another great tool to use to plan out your personal brand recovery is the 30-60-90-day plan. I’ve written extensively on it and have a template you can use. A brand recovery plan can really help get you focused on the steps you need to take to come back quickly in a way that is visible others.
The components of the plan are quite simple:
Relationship recovery: If I’ve screwed up or gotten negative feedback or suffered a demotion or reprimand, I always start by trying to repair my relationships. The temptation is to be angry or defensive or to withdraw, but that is a mistake. You need to swallow your pride, find anyone who has been negatively affected by your mistakes and let them know you feel badly, and that your intention is to grow and improve from this. Whatever the setback is, you need to start by putting the relationships back in good order.
Learning plan activation: There is no better time to embrace your personal learning plan than after a major blunder. If you’ve suffered a setback, create a specific learning objective, start actively learning and make sure you let your boss and others know about it. Learning is an inherently positive activity. It creates a feeling of optimism and can be the perfect thing to get you back on an upward trajectory.
Pick your next big win: This one is key. The best way to recover from a loss is to come back with a big win. You’ll be shocked by how fast people can forget about mistakes when there is a nice shiny win to talk about. I’ve seen managers come back from terrible situations by stringing together a couple of nice wins. It’s absolutely critical when you’ve had a setback to quickly figure out what your next win is going to be and started planning to achieve it. You can never go back in time and correct a mistake – and that’s hard to accept sometimes – but what you can do, is get back to winning as quickly as possible. In the grand scheme of your career it’s just as good or better.
3. Align with your boss on your bounce back plan
Once you’ve got your mind right and your recovery plan in place, you need to sit down with your boss and have an honest conversation. Whether you’ve been reprimanded or demoted or you just screwed something up, you need to enlist your boss’s support in your comeback. The only way you can really have a fresh start is to put the mistake behind you and get your boss bought into the next phase of things. When it happens to me, I book time with my boss to let her know that I recognize my mistake, that I am determined a truly great performer, and that I have a plan to get back on top.
I know it might seem a bit awkward to approach your boss in this way after screwing up but it’s almost always well received and will go a long way towards getting back to winning ways.
I’ve spent enough time now with senior leaders and executives to know that their career journeys look a lot more like mine than I may have imagined. The path to progression for most of us has peaks and valleys. The key is not to avoid risks or mistakes entirely but to bounce back from them quickly and purposefully. My hope is that these four steps will give you comfort and a practical playbook to recover the next time adversity hits for you.