A Second Chance: How a CEO Can Bounce Back After Being Fired

Turnover among CEOs at the world’s 2,500 largest companies hit a record high of 17.5% in 2018 according to PwC research, 3% higher than 2017 and well above the norm for the last decade. While some of these departures were voluntary, others were not.

CEOs are increasingly leaving companies at a time not of their choosing.  Even company founders like Travis Kalanick, ex-Uber CEO found himself job hunting when he was removed from the company he started. Below Chris Coe, Executive Vice-President Talentmark, explains that success in the top job comes with many risks, be it leadership challenges, corporate politics or shareholder pressure.

But even when a CEO is forced out, the situation is not always their own fault.  There could have been a strategic shift by the Board necessitating a different type of leadership, a dramatic change in market conditions or a combination of unforeseen factors that were beyond their control.

So how does a CEO who has been fired go about securing another role? How can they present and explain what has happened? While each case will be different, here are some suggestions on ways to approach this situation and re-package what you have to offer.

It may take time

Firstly, don’t panic. Having worked with CEOs and senior executives for more than 25 years, it’s my experience that it’s possible to get away with one role not working out, as long as your overall track record is one of success. At the same time, it’s unlikely that you will walk straight into a new role. So, be patient and stay positive and invest in staying in good shape mentally, physically and emotionally. It won’t be detrimental to have a gap on your CV.

Be flexible

Be prepared to be geographically mobile and keep all options open. It may make sense to broaden your horizons and look outside of Europe, as long as you are culturally adept and have international experience. Historically, US businesses are more forgiving when it comes to giving CEOs a second chance. Likewise, be open-minded as to the role. For example, a CEO who took a risk that did not pay off in a larger organisation, may be the ideal person to lead a fast-growth start-up in the same sector.

Turn negatives into positives

Distil the characteristics that define you as a leader. Can you show that you helped to guide the business through a sustained period of turbulence? Are there examples of how quick-thinking helped to avert a potential crisis? It’s important that a CEO can demonstrate resilience, agility and courage. The best CEOs learn from their mistakes and are better placed to avoid them in the future, so don’t let failure set you back – it can be an asset.

Honesty and Humility

Honesty is the best policy when explaining what went wrong, and humility will also be well received. Share everything you can (warts and all) with your head-hunter to help them get the full picture. As trusted advisors (working with both candidates and employers) our job is to look beneath the surface. We will be championing what you have to offer, as well as explaining why we are putting you forward for a role.

Short vs long tenure

If you were only with the business for a short period of time, consider whether or not you undertook adequate ‘soft diligence’ before accepting the job. Were you given full access to the management team and Chair? Did you raise any concerns or sensitive issues at the time? Some CEOs get into difficulties because they didn’t fully understand what they were taking on – the match was not right from the start. If so, it’s important to address this honestly.

Create your own advisory team

As head-hunters, we have seen similar scenarios many times over.  In our advisory capacity we may already know members of your previous company’s Board or be familiar with the history of the business and the challenges that you faced. This insight could prove very helpful. Also, consider finding an executive coach to help you to work through what has happened, as well as address any interpersonal, communication or leadership issues. Finally, tapping into your own personal network can help to boost morale and be a source of practical support and useful contacts.

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