Education optimize

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.


16 comments
pearlswest
pearlswest

Thanks 4 the tips and sharing. Awesome Japanese proverb..hehe

ScottLander
ScottLander

Thanks for the article. Honestly though, I don't understand how your 10 examples/points (scenarios, personal experiences, or whatever you want to call them) translate into 'career disasters'. To me it just sounds like you wrote a list of 10 experiences from your past, and the outcome from them.

mjstelly
mjstelly

1) In IT, stay current or stay home. After working as a manager for 3 years, I was laid off last year. Since I focused on management skills, my tech skills lagged. Now I've been unemployed for over a year and struggling to "get back in the game." 2) No one hires middle managers.

Robiisan
Robiisan

Without havig seen an example of earlier work, it's hard to make a comparison (#3). However, in this instance, you appear to write very well. (Not to encourage Tony H.'s RSI challenge :-) )

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

I think you need to get a life outside work... You may also want to insure your arm, patting yourself on the back this much pretty much guarantees RSI..

oldbaritone
oldbaritone

Some people have integrity, others do not. After a marathon meeting week where our entire department started with a concept and roughed it into a project with realistic objectives and schedules, we were all brought to the Board Room for the presentation. The department manager presented his original concept to the Board, and told them his entire department was "on board with this." We had bought-in to A project, but not HIS project. We were appalled that he presented his disaster as our dream, as though the meetings had never happened. But the manager was a "fair-haired boy" who had been bought away from another company, and who could do no wrong. Six months later, things were far behind schedule, way over budget, and the Board wanted to know why. (We were on-track with our developed schedule and budget, but not with the overly-optimistic blue-sky dreams.) The project team started hearing "everyone bought in on this, why isn't it done? You'll need to be working a lot more hours to get this completed." Well we HADN'T bought-in, and the manager's lack of integrity continued, blaming everyone but himself for everything that went wrong, and taking all of the credit for the things that went right. Fortunately, another company called the manager with a more-lucrative offer, and he moved on to greener pastures. Over the years, I've seen it happen many times.

stso9daa
stso9daa

People in the technology world are sometimes stubborn(myself included)! I once fought with the bosses pet (she was good looking and I was a guy) over the design of a large network setup and won (I was right). I was young and totally committed to stupidity. I was later passed over for promotions, but kept a healthy workload... She went on to less work and more $$$$.. Lesson learned... Looks wins over smarts - every time!

PHolz
PHolz

I have also worked for bosses that refused to accept integrity, just like they took a pass on common sense when it was being passed out. There are two ways to deal with these idiots, I recommend doing both: 1)CYA - Cover Your Ass - document everything (keep a copy at home) - in this case, you might have also fished for more by sending your boss an e-mail explaining your concern. If he is dumb enough to reply back and tell you to be a team player, then your have something to take to one or two levels above your boss. 2) KYRU - Keep Your Resume Updated. If you can't get rid of him, it's time to move on. I'm about 50/50 after 25 years.

delphi9_1971
delphi9_1971

...Bosses like that are prized. Why don't their superiors ever see the lack of integrity that these people have? I too have seen this many times and it frustrates me when I do.

stanvinh
stanvinh

I agree... But I would prefer win-win situation where everyone is compromised and work better as a team where thing can be done in timely manner.

Heimdall222
Heimdall222

...to the effect that those who can, do - those who can't, teach - those who can't even teach, manage. That's just as true in the business world as it is in education! I once had a drunken manager confide to me that he got into management because he knew he wasn't competent in his very-technical field. That's what all of his subordinates already suspected, so his comment just confirmed their suspicions. (Not that I passed on his comment, of course...lol!) Why don't their superiors ever see the lack of integrity that these people have? To paraphrase another old saying, anal orifices of a feather flock together. They apparently all smell the same to each other. Smell the same? Ummm, ever watch two canines (or French persons) getting acquainted? My company has what's called "Early Identified Staff". This is a managerial career category into which a correct-smelling recruit is placed. And once placed, because said placement requires smell-testing and buy-in by many senior management types, it's nearly impossible for the recruit to be removed. Unless for something like single-handedly burning down a manufacturing facility.... All of that is why a manager's anticipated value is so much more important than his/her/its real value. It's sad but true - once a manager, always a manager, till death (or a more lucrative position) do us part!

sperry532
sperry532

Managers are paid more so they are considered "more important" than the people who produce. I have been told so by more than one former employer. The phrase is usually some variant of "we paid x thousands of dollar to get them to work here. It would cost us x thousands to replace them. It costs less to replace you." It's sort of like pro sports teams in that respect. Ownership pays a premium for anticipated value, not realized value.

dave the IT guy
dave the IT guy

An employee that has some value is rewarded with a promotion, who then does well at that job and is promoted again because of their competence. They continue to be promoted until they get put into a job that is beyond their level of competence - and stay there because they never do the job well enough to get promoted again. But it also means that they don't do the job well enough - period. So they stay in a job where they are ineffective and incompetent.

rni302
rni302

The not to competent manager gets promoted and then promotes other not to competent managers under him. Senior leadership may not see the flaws because they themselves are cut from the same cloth. A bad seed at the top, tends to sow the same mind-set below them.

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

Those listed as 'Other' are just hiding a bad career.

The 'G-Man.'
The 'G-Man.'

Players get paid much, much more than the managers ever do.