Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post was on Meet The Press last month and made the comment that Carly Fiorina shouldn’t be taken seriously because she is “..a failed business leader & a failed political candidate..”. Seriously? In what universe does being fired from the CEO position at one of the world’s largest technology companies make you a failure? It is an unfortunate perception, I suppose, that if you were fired from your job, it must reflect poorly on you, your performance in that job, your skill set, or something else negative. And of course, no one LIKES getting fired, unless they have an amazing severance package and were really hoping to be terminated I suppose! But after hearing Ms. Marcus’s comments, which hit a nerve with me because I’ve been fired several times, I thought it might be helpful to others to know what being fired has meant to me and a few other entrepreneurs of note.
Let me start with my own experience. In 1981, I left the security of a Fortune 500 company to start my own business. I had no personal wealth at the time, a pregnant wife who was substitute teaching, three kids to support, and a business plan that was not much more than 28 pages of ideas and projections. Fortunately, I was able to get it funded and, over the next twenty years, grew it to become one of the more successful advanced materials companies in the US – supplying companies like Motorola, Mitsubishi, General Motors, Exxon, Siemens, and others with critical materials and components for telecom, nuclear power, transportation, electronic, and other markets. The company attracted the attention of a $40 billion conglomerate in 2001 who eventually acquired us and, within 30 minutes of being acquired, I was called into my own office by the lawyer who handled the deal for the other side and I was fired! I have to say, it was not entirely unexpected. Being fired as part of a corporate acquisition is hardly unusual (or personal). Most acquisition deals done by large companies wind up eliminating the top management in order to (a) save money, (b) instill “loyal” management teams already part of the big company, and/or (c) create a fresh approach. Less than 10 years later, another company that I had founded was struggling to survive from the financial turmoil of 2008. While I continued to travel around the world seeking financing partners to ride out the storm, my senior management team convinced the Board of Directors that those efforts were futile and that a change in the face of the company was needed to attract new investors. Without warning, I was asked by the Board to step down and, not wanting to create even more challenges than the company was already facing, I agreed. It was a desperate act in desperate times and not something that I took personally. Two months later, the Board and management team came to the conclusion that a “new” face wasn’t the solution but it was too late and the company had to file for liquidation.
Both of those experiences taught me that being fired was not the end of the world. In fact, after each occurrence, I found myself energized and looking forward to creating my next opportunity – and ultimately that led to focusing 100% of my time and energy on The InVentures Group which has been highly satisfying. But my “second acts” pale in comparison to what some others achieved after being fired. Here are a few examples that I am sure you’ll enjoy.
• In 1919, Walt Disney was fired from the Kansas City Star. According to his editor, he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” Solid assessment by that guy!
• Michael Bloomberg was a partner at Salomon Brothers, an investment bank. In 1998, they were bought out by the company that eventually became Citigroup. Bloomberg was let go but not before receiving a hefty severance check.
• Vogue Editor Anna Wintour’s started her career in New York as a junior fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar. She made waves for her innovative shoots, but editor Tony Mazalla thought they were a little too edgy. She got canned after a mere 9 months.
• Bill Belichick has led the New England Patriots to numerous Super Bowl appearances and wins, but in 1995, he was fired from his first head coaching job with the Cleveland Browns by their owner Art Modell who apparently didn’t think he had what it took to be a head coach in the NFL. Good call Art!
• Lee Iaccoca rose to the top of the Ford Motor Company but he clashed with Henry Ford Jr., company’s then-CEO and chairman. After a string of unused and bad ideas (including the Ford Pinto), Iacocca was let go. Lee landed at then-struggling Chrysler and wound up saving them from bankruptcy at the time.
• Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank were working for a company called Handy Dan – an home-improvement chain, when a corporate raider fired both of them. The two men decided to start their own home-improvement store based on an idea they’d had while at Handy Dan: an entire store of discounts. They called it Home Depot. In less than a decade, they’d opened over 100 stores and made over $2.7 billion in sales. Oops!
• And Thomas Edison got canned from Western Union for spilling acid on the floor one evening while conducting experiments. He decided to pursue inventing full-time. And we all know how that turned out!
The bottom line is that hearing the words “You’re Fired” is hardly a sign of failure, as Ms. Marcus seems to think it is. It’s a chance to start anew – and do things even better!