It was with great pleasure recently that I stumbled across one of my favorite episodes of Mad Men.
In this particular episode from Season 7, Don Draper finds out rather suddenly that he now reports to Peggy, his former protégé. As evidence of his newly diminished role in the firm he helped create, Peggy asks him to create 25 taglines for a Burger Chef campaign. He has gone from high-powered partner to a copywriter.
Obviously, the reality of his situation is a huge hit to his ego and personal reputation. His frustration gets the best of him as he storms into his office, picks up his typewriter and hurls it at the window.
Then Don starts behaving in a passive-aggressive manner by skipping meetings, not doing the work, and leaving the office early.
Finally, Don does what he does best, turning to a bottle of Vodka for comfort. In short order, he is completely hammered.
In desperation, Don finally reaches out to an old colleague, Freddy, who arrives just in time with some sage advice.
Sitting in Don’s Manhattan apartment, Freddy asks a hungover Don, “What the hell are you doing?” Don says, “I want my job back”. Freddy reminds him that his current course of action won’t get him his job back. He then challenges Don by saying, “Do the work Don!”
These words get through to Don. As the episode ends, Don is back in his office, sober, and promising Peggy that she’ll have the 25 taglines that she asked for.
As I watched this episode a second time, I was reminded just how common it is for many leaders to suffer a career setback at some point. Despite the fact that most of us will go through this, we are rarely, if ever, taught how to deal with a career setback.
For Don, it was really about the loss of power, prestige, and influence in the agency he founded. For others, a career setback may mean one is demoted or even exiled to some awful part of an organization. You feel stranded on your own.
For others, it may result in a job loss. Maybe you screwed up on a major project. Or you lost on an internal political battle. Whatever kind of setback you experience, what’s the best way to manage this challenging situation?
To get the answer to my question, I reached out to my colleague Willian Brown who is Lee Hecht Harrison’s SVP and Practice Leader for our International Center for Executive Options (ICEO). Bill and his team work with senior executives of Fortune 500 companies who are going through a career transition. They have also worked with many business leaders who have experienced a career setback and now need to figure out how to get things back on track.
I couldn’t think of a better person to talk to and here are some of the top tips that I learned from Bill:
- Step Back and Assess Your Situation. Honest self-assessment is a critical first step to moving forward. “It’s important to really understand what happened and why,” said Bill. It’s particularly important to determine if the career setback damaged your personal brand and reputation. If it has, you may need to lie low for a period of time. “Don’t engage right away in finding your next opportunity. For some leaders, especially if they are part of a high profile business story, it’s advisable to consult with a top-tier publicist so you can preserve and protect your brand.”
- Seek counsel from people you trust. When you experience a career setback, you’ll find out immediately who your friends are. These are the people you must lean on for advice and guidance. As Don Draper showed us, we all need a Freddy in our lives when things are not going well in our careers. Who are the people you know have your back? You don’t just need people who will support you with kind platitudes, you also need those with the courage to give you the direct feedback you need to get your career back on track.
- Reflect on your future options. Brown also emphasized the importance of “taking time to reflect on what you really want to do from the options available to you. Reassess and create a pathway to move forward.” This may mean not jumping immediately at the first opportunity that comes along after a career setback. Take the time to make the next move the best move.
- Determine the underlying lesson. For many of us, we learn our most important life and career lessons when we are going through difficult and challenging times. What are the enduring lessons that you glean from your setback? How do you use those lessons to propel you forward, rather than remain stuck?
If you find yourself going through a career setback, take a few minutes to reflect on Don Draper’s experience, and Bill’s advice, and use the steps above to help you through troubled waters.
This week’s gut check asks: do you know how to deal with a career setback?