Tips on career rebounds for French socialists and CEOs alike

Herminia Ibarra Career Management,   Leadership The Financial Times

Herminia Ibarra of Insead on Arnaud Montebourg’s business school reinvention and other comebacks.

Teaching at France’s Insead business school, I’ve had a ringside seat this term for an intriguing career U-turn. One of my pupils on the advanced management programme was Arnaud Montebourg, the former French economy minister who was this year ousted from President François Hollande’s cabinet.

Mr Montebourg, who had a volatile relationship with big business, took the course as preparation for starting his own company. But he is far from alone in his need to find a way to bounce back from a major career setback in 2014. Examples include Gregg Steinhafel, the chief executive of Target, who resigned in the wake of a credit card security breach after 35 years with the US retailer.

What’s next for these fallen giants? Research shows that people who rebound successfully from career losses make use of their experience to take a step back, refresh their network and craft a new story about who they are and what they have learnt.

Take a step back. In a study of 300 executive “comeback kids”, Yale professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and co-author Andrew Ward found that most begin their recovery with a tactical retreat. When Jamie Dimon was sacked as president of Citigroup, he took a “timeout” year. He read biographies of great political leaders who suffered setbacks; he also took up boxing.

The benefits of this strategy of reculer pour mieux sauter are one reason why going back to school is such a popular tool for personal reinvention. Insead professors Gianpiero and Jennifer Petriglieri argue that leadership programmes provide “identity workspaces” in which people can wrestle with questions like: “Who am I as a leader?”

That’s why Mr Montebourg, who was happy to discuss his time at Insead for this column, went back to school. But ivory tower reflection is insufficient for a transition that ultimately depends more on action than introspection.

Get outside your network. In a study of fired, laid off or passed over executives, Mitchell Lee Marks and co-authors Philip Mirvis and Ron Ashkenas found that many turned exclusively to sympathetic friends, family members and colleagues for feedback. This only reinforced the executives’ existing views and self-image, and stopped them learning.

I found a similar dynamic in a study of mid-career change: our closest confidants are usually the ones that are most invested in our remaining who we were. That is why personal growth usually requires durable change in the company you keep. Mr Montebourg says that one major benefit he gleaned from business school was the ability to share candid personal reflections with people in the same boat, in total intimacy and confidentiality. His fellow participants are now his “compagnons de route”; he plans to stay in touch and continue to draw support from this new and diverse peer group as he moves into a next career in business.

Hone your reinvention story. Failure is not a popular plot line. It raises two questions that demand a good answer: “What was your part in the failure?” and “How have you changed?” Answering both requires a tale of overcoming hardship to become better, and wiser, often enduring a difficult but instructive period “wandering in the wilderness”, as Steve Jobs did after Apple sacked him in 1985.

Trials and tribulations are an integral part of the “heroic journey” documented by American mythologist Joseph Campbell, in which the protagonist is called to action, leaves home, and only returns triumphant after being tested in unfamiliar territory. Dan McAdams, a psychology professor at Northwestern University, says well-adapted adults reframe losses as opportunities by crafting “redemption narratives”.

Bouncing back from a major career setback requires a good story about who you are and what matters to you: your identity. But, the tricky thing about identity is that it is forged of a delicate alliance between continuity and change.

We expect our political and business leaders to be coherent and stand up for their beliefs even when their views are unpopular. At the same time, we want them to listen to feedback, to learn and to adapt. A radical U-turn is as much cause for suspicion as a failure to update one’s ideas. Mr Montebourg recently said he realised that running a business was a “real job”. Now he faces the narrative task of reconciling this stance with his former views.

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