10 classic career disasters and lessons learned

Those professional missteps and failures often teach us more than our accomplishments and successes. Steve Tobak shares the positive outcomes of some of his negative career experiences.

We've all had horrible workplace experiences where really important things go terribly wrong. Those are the times when people reveal their true selves. Those are the times that bring out either the best or the worst in us.

Here are 10 of the most trying experiences in my career and the lesson I learned from each one, told chronologically.

Note: This article is based on an entry in BNET's Leadership blog. It's also available as a PDF download.

1: Getting chewed out

My boss, the first manager I respected and admired, dressed me down at a staff meeting. To make matters worse, he was wrong. But once he realized it a few days later, he apologized in front of the same group. It taught me that humility was a good thing.

2: Receiving a mediocre review

When I received my first mediocre review and inquired why, I was told that the program I was working on wasn't that important so nobody got excited when my name came up. That's when I learned to take risks on high-visibility projects. That changed the entire trajectory of my career.

3: I'm illiterate? Really?

After reading my first-ever attempt at writing a product specification, the project manager called me illiterate and asked how I ever graduated college. He was right, and that's when I learned the importance of writing. How am I doing?

4: Having a micromanager boss

I tried talking to him; that didn't help. I tried talking to our management; that didn't help. So I left the company. I learned that the boss is always more important to the company than you are. It was also that important kick in the behind I needed to get out and try something new.

5: Coping with a customer disaster

I was relatively new to sales when a manufacturing delay caused my biggest customer's product line to be shut down. They weren't pleased, to say the least. That's when I realized this was the best opportunity to prove our value to the customer. I fought for them and did it with transparency. When my company delivered, we had a customer for life.

6: Getting laid off

Yes, it happened to me once. My first instinct was to feel rejected and I had a pressing desire to lash out in anger. But I fought it down and acted about as poised as I could. It turned out to be the right move and a blessing in disguise. That's when I learned that everything happens for a reason and, when one door closes, another opens.

7: Dealing with a high-visibility crisis

As head of marketing for a microprocessor company, I experienced my first high-visibility product crisis — a bug in one of our processor chips that had already shipped and were being used in tens of thousands of computers. That was the first of many experiences that taught me crisis management.

8: Outlasting an abusive CEO

My boss and CEO ripped me apart a few times. But I wasn't alone and I loved the company and my job, so I hung in there. Lo and behold, the board eventually fired him (for performance reasons, of course). For me, that proved an old Japanese proverb: "If you wait by the river long enough, you'll see the body of your enemy float by."

9: Being called out by the CEO

After a meeting where I blew a gasket, my CEO took me aside and explained that I had shot myself in the foot and how it hurt my credibility. I was so impressed with his willingness to confront me that it got me thinking about my bullying ways and the merits of being straightforward with my own staff.

10: Surviving a branding disaster

I put my neck on the line to deliver a complete rebranding of a public company by a specific launch date. But when one of the consultants let me down big-time, I had to dig in, 24×7, and make it happen. The lesson was stay on top of your vendors. Regardless of the relationship, they may not have the same skin in the game that you do.

Those are 10 experiences that helped to shape my career. Let's hear some of yours.

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