Dealing with the many forms of career panic

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 February, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 February, 1994, 12:00am

A FRIEND of mine was the chief operating officer of a profitable media company that merged with a competitor.

Under the merger agreement he was slated to be an integral part of the newly formed company's senior management.

But he didn't see eye-to-eye with the new CEO on major issues.

As a result, he is out of a job.

When I had a chance to commiserate with him and find out what he planned to do next, he told me: ''Mark, I frankly don't regard this hiccup in my career as bad news.

''But my family and friends seem to think it's a major calamity.

''I'm 50 years old and, with my stock and severance package, I don't need to rush back to work.

''Yet everyone is urging me to get back to work immediately.

''The longer I'm unemployed, the harder it will be to find a job. I'll be 'damaged goods'.

''I don't think I'm risking my career by taking a well-earned break.'' The more I thought about it, the more convinced I was that my friend was taking a remarkably enlightened approach to this ''calamity.'' Most people who have been suddenly put out to pasture tend to panic, when, in fact, they really should be maintaining their poise and sorting out their options.

People don't win jobs at the highest levels (or, for that matter, at lower levels) out of frenzied activity or desperate need.

Employers can sense that desperation the moment you walk in the room, and it is rarely an attractive quality.

The interesting thing about career panic is how many ways it manifests itself.

Panic isn't just the sweaty-browed terror of searching for the next job.

It can also be a failure to say ''no'' to a job that's wrong for you, a failure to consider all your options, or a failure simply to put the unpleasant memories of your old employer behind you.

All these mental errors, which might be obvious if you could distance yourself from an admittedly stressful situation, are forms of panic, as are the following two points that even the smartest people often overlook.

1. Don't feel you have to show everyone you were wronged.

The normal impulse when you've just been axed - and this applies whether you've been axed from your job or fired by a client or lost a major account - is to show the world that you were somehow wronged.

People regard the loss as an attack on their image and self-esteem.

So, in a slight state of shock, they immediately dive into the same situation, as if that will show the world that they haven't lost their touch.

In other words, they panic.

They fail to step back and ask themselves whether they should be doing that job in the first place, or if they like handling clients or servicing accounts.

Some years ago I knew the chairman of an American industrial company who was forced out of his post after a losing bitter takeover battle with a foreign conglomerate.

This chairman, already in his 60s, could easily have moved on to a second career as a well-paid consultant, giving speeches, lecturing at business schools, and functioning as an eminence grise in his field.

But losing his company rankled him - to the point where, within weeks of his departure, he announced that he had acquired control of a new company and planned to compete directly with his old company.

I'm sure this decision was totally ego-driven; he wanted to show the world that he hadn't lost a step.

Unfortunately, running a start-up company is nothing like running a large organisation.

Tasks that he could delegate to several layers of staff in his previous life were now his alone to do.

Without his old company's resources, he couldn't function at his best.

Within a couple of years, he realised he was miserable, and it showed in his company's miserable performance.

He lost money and prestige by this misbegotten attempt to show the world it was wrong.

I can't help thinking that he could have rounded off his career more gracefully if he hadn't pressed the panic button, if he had waited a few months to get a more objective look at his options and perhaps watch some interesting offers roll in.

2. Don't badmouth your ex-employer.

Feeling bitter towards a former employer (or client or customer) who has treated you badly is one of the more interesting forms of panic, because it's so predictable.

For that reason alone, people should be shrewd enough to swallow their bitterness.

Over the years I've met dozens of people who have literally made second careers out of bad-mouthing their ex-employers.

I don't know what perceived injustices or psychological pressures force them to behave this way, but it's not rational and it rarely helps their cause.

For one thing, trashing your former employer is a classic case of looking backward rather than forwards.

You can't think clearly about your future if you're obsessed with the past.

Perhaps more important, speaking ill of your old company doesn't speak well of you.

If suggests a smallness of character that most people would just as soon keep out of their companies.

A friend who had been particularly ill-served by his longtime employer once told me the smartest decision he made after negotiating his severance was to promise himself never to say anything bad about his old company.

''I suppose it made me look like a noble fellow to some people, that I could let bygones be bygones.

''But I had a more practical motive: I didn't want to sever my ties with all the talented people I knew at the company.

''These contacts were one of the bigger assets I would bring to the table when I looked for another job.

''I doubt if my ex-colleagues would be so co-operative if they knew I was going around trashing the company that was signing their pay-checks.''