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Smart, Capable, and Competent People Get Fired Everyday

    Over six months ago I experienced something that I haven't been through since my very first job renting prom tuxedos; I was fired.  Don't get any gossipy ideas, I wasn't let go because of anything immoral, illegal, or unethical.  My employment was terminated for "not achieving the goals of my position".  This is a very nebulous statement, and one that is very common when you are in upper management or on the upper end of middle management.

    There is a strata in middle management where as long as you are doing your job, and business conditions aren't disastrous, you are pretty secure in your position.  You will notice that your manager or boss doesn't enjoy the same flavor of stability.  In my 25 years in heavy industry, I have seen countless regime changes that have resulted in a purging of the upper management.  Are these managers incompetent? Not always.  Are they insolent and stubborn? Sometimes.  Most often, they don't have the trust of the new leadership.

    Whenever a serious turnaround in an organization is necessary, we won't always have time to bring the incumbents up to full speed on the changes necessary.  No matter what the new leadership has to offer, there are invariably incumbent employees and managers that don't want to change the way they are doing things.  It is very illogical, since if the way things are done is the most optimal, then the upper management changes wouldn't be needed (retirements and untimely deaths excluded).  There is so much wasted energy trying to get everyone on board ,it's akin to herding cats.

    When you are the new leader being held responsible for drastic and abrupt improvements in performance, you don't have an infinite amount of time to wait for everyone to realize that they need to get along and go along.  I am not suggesting that you need to militantly clean house like Jack Nicholson's portrayal of Teamster President Jimmy Hoffa, in the eponymous named movie.  Rather, you need to analyze who is going to have the potential to help, hurt, or do nothing at all.

    In many cases, newly hired leaders bring with them some associates that they trust from experiences in their past.  So many times I have heard people whine "He/She is bringing in their own people."  Well Duh! How do you think that new leader is going to instill the values necessary without any dependable help?  Try it yourself on a small scale with a volunteer project and you'll soon find yourself recruiting your close friends in order to get the job done correctly and timely.

    When I was fired back in November, it was like someone had punched me in the gut.  I had a feeling for a few months that it was likely.  The relationship between myself and the plant general manager had begun to descend to a series of mechanical conversations lacking guidance, encouragement, or any type of resolution.  I was hoping that I could hit one out of the park and gain back his respect, but I soon found out that it was a futile attempt.  His mind was already made up, and I was going to be shown the door; it was just a matter of time.  When I did leave, I felt relieved and terrified at the same time.  The last time I was fired was 31 years ago and I didn't have a single financial obligation to worry about.  Now, with five kids, mortgages, bills, college tuition, child support, and the loss of health benefits, my head began to spin.  I kept my composure and quickly packed my personal effects.  I called into my office the three young engineers that I had recently hired to explain to them what happened, and that they should stay and see our planned changes through to the end.  I didn't want to show any bitterness, so I packed quickly, and had them help me load everything into my car so I could leave a soon as I could.

   Because of my situation, and of an ongoing lawsuit against the company, I was offered a generous severance package.  Within two days, I had a contract position that allowed me to start my own consulting business, and by the end of the week I had secured health care through COBRA for my family.  Cash flow was a bit rocky, but after invoices started getting paid, I found myself happier, more fulfilled, and prouder of my work.  Even though the contract job ended prematurely, I was able to sign on with a larger consulting company, and am doing the kind of work that I love.

   About three months later, I was calling a friend while driving.  He said that he couldn't talk and would get back to me later.  When he did, he told me that when I called him, he was cleaning out his desk and being escorted off of site.  Similar to me, he had taken a high risk, high reward position with a company that was not stable.  After only 90 days they hastily dismissed him.  Just like others had done for me, I attempted to convey to him that everything would work out, and that he would soon feel the relief of not having to work in such a shithole any longer.  It took him some time to believe it, like it had taken me, but he soon found himself relieved.

    Around the same time I had to give a deposition on the wrongful dismissal lawsuit from a supervisor that I had fired six months earlier.  The company was worried that I would sabotage the proceedings, but I answered all questions honestly and to the point.  Why would I lie and sandbag the deposition?  It was my reputation and credibility still on the line.  Afterwards I had a brief conversation with the HR manager who was there with me, we said our farewells, and I went on with the rest of my career.

    Every day in the media we can find stories of a CEO or CFO that has been fired, or pushed to retire.  Are these people stupid? Of course not, they just aren't the right person for the job, or they are working with and/or for the wrong people.  They are smart, capable ,and competent people.  Unfortunately, they aren't completely compatible with the position that they are working.  The real indicator of skill, is being resilient and bouncing back.  Smart, talented people know how to find the right opportunity after they analyze what went wrong before.  That is where I am now.  That is where my friend is now.  We both have found good paying, challenging positions with people who recognize our skill.

This whole lesson is very similar to going through a divorce.  When a marriage ends, its deadening; down to the very depths of one's soul.  It is a complete rejection.  If you can keep yourself objective (as is possible) the debris will be cleared, and you will be able to see through the scars, what is possible.  New relationships, like new jobs show us that we are desirable and useful.  Having close friends and associates who believe in you makes all the difference.  If we stay in the game long enough, we are going to lose once in a while.  The key is to pick up the pieces, analyze what went wrong, avoid dwelling on it, and move on to the next challenge.

   Moving on without dwelling is the hardest part.  Those first couple of months were tough on me, even though I was working.  Every night for 60 or so days I dreamt about getting fired, over and over again.  It was miserable.  Even though I worked through the pain and didn't consciously dwell, my subconscious was dwelling like a brat, and tortured me every night.  Eventually, like everything else, it faded and the dreams have become very infrequent.  I found a group to work with that I really enjoy and hopefully it all works out for the best.

Post Script:  About two months after I was fired, the General Manager was fired, along with a few others.  I didn't gloat in his situation, because I knew that my demise and his were inextricably linked.  We haven't spoken since the day I left the plant, and I doubt we will until circumstances demand it.  My biggest regret is that I lost his trust and his respect.  He was one of the best leaders I had ever worked for in my career to date.  When his boss was fired three months before me, I knew we were entangled in an unavoidable cascade of deselection.  I was an outsider with few allies, and wasn't able to get done what I needed to secure my position; but in the end it was on me to make it or break it.


  1. I found your blog in preparation for an interview with you over a year ago. Even though you didn't hire me, someone else in the company did, I still read every post. I'm glad for your closure- kunesh

  2. Glad to hear that you read the posts Joe. Although I didn't hire you for the maintenance role, I did recommend you for the engineering role since it seemed to be a better fit for your skills, and it turned out to be a great call. The department certainly benefited from your skill set. I hope that everything is going well and that it has been a positive change in your career. Thank you for your comment.


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