Is it the worst thing to ever happen to you or the best chance you'll ever have to become your own boss?
Don't panic. Breathe deeply. The halls of history are crowded with people who have been fired--friends and family members, the coaches of losing football teams, all those contestants on The Apprentice. Of course, that knowledge may not be very soothing if, moments ago, you were standing on a street corner outside your former place of employment, a box of your belongings in your hands, a dazed look on your face . . . and now you're flipping through this magazine and thinking, "I don't need a pep talk--I need money, and I need a $@#%& life!"
Again, don't panic. Just breathe deeply. The ax has fallen on just about everybody at one time or another, and if you look at this in the right way, you might someday thank the person who did the swinging.
Trail of Pink Slips
Similar to the stages that one goes through after losing a loved one, there are eight stages-incredulity, humiliation, terror, resentment, acceptance, perspective, action and control--that an unsuspecting person goes through after they're fired, says Francie Dalton, a business consultant in Columbia, Maryland, whose firm has done a lot of work in management and HR.
But entrepreneur Beth Shaw, who had been fired multiple times before starting her business, was generally able to jettison those first four phases. She was almost used to getting the ax.
Over the years, others might have developed something of an inferiority complex after being fired so many times, but Shaw, 38, has dodged that-partly because once you own a business that has 15 full-time employees, 45 contractors and 2005 sales projections of $3 million, you can't help but feel OK about yourself. Shaw owns YogaFit, a Redondo Beach, California, company that has training programs across the country and sells yoga-related items online at www.yogafit.com.
For a while, however, Shaw was probably beginning to wonder if something was wrong with her. She was fired from a series of waitressing jobs in college because she sometimes brought the wrong orders to tables and wasn't as polite to the customers as she probably should have been. She was fired from her first job after college because, as she recalls, "I wanted to have a role that was a lot more advanced. I wanted to be the PR person for the company, but they didn't want that. They wanted somebody who could keep her mouth shut and was happy earning $15,000 a year."
That particular firing especially smarted, "but you pick yourself up," observes Shaw, "and you always find something better. And so, by the third or fourth time, it gets easier."
Still, she was surprised to go from her first job out of college to a second, and get fired yet again. She worked for a company that required her to be in the office at 6:45 a.m., and every time she was late, she was written up. And her supervisors were constantly urging her to go on more sales calls. Eventually, Shaw got canned. From there, she went on to be a West Coast advertising manager for a trade magazine in Ohio. She gamely began her duties, constantly re-energizing herself through her hobby, yoga.
That was part of the problem. Not only did she practice it, she began a little side business teaching yoga, selling mail order yoga products and starring in a little-seen cable yoga show, which didn't bring in much money but kept her busy--so busy that her work began to suffer. "As I got more into my hobby, I spent less and less time working on my job," says Shaw, "and less and less time putting proper sales reports together, documenting things, and playing by the rules that you try to play by. My employer told me, 'You either get it together and follow through on these things, or you don't have a job.' And I couldn't get it together. I guess I didn't want to get it together."
When she was fired in 1998, it was done over the telephone, right around noon. She was sickened but not all that surprised. Says Shaw, "Very few people get fired out of the blue, I think." A little dazed, Shaw made an instinctive move, her first executive decision: This was the perfect time for her to turn her hobby and part-time gig into a full-time company.
How you were fired isn't as important as what you do after it happens. "I was nervous," says 49-year-old Barry Brinker, "but my philosophy has always been that change is good, and without change, there is no growth, so I was excited as well as nervous."
Brinker was the director of new product development for a large accessories manufacturer in Cincinnati when everybody learned the firm had been sold to a company in Boston. Some employees were asked to relocate--the rest were told to keep in touch and drop in if they ever came up to see a Patriots game. Brinker was panicked. Well into his 30s, he feared that prospective employers would regard him as a man with too much experience and requiring too large a salary to hire.
Brinker had traveled a lot for his job, including visits to Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong, and it was in the latter location that he had established a lot of friends and contacts during his 11 years of working for the company. Feeling like he had no options in Cincinnati, he traveled to Hong Kong, hoping to find work. He did. With a contact in Hong Kong, he started his own business, designing and manufacturing handbags and baggage.
Not that it was a completely simple matter. "It's amazing how different it is going to a foreign country alone and with almost no support, compared to traveling there on an expense account, staying in nice hotels, and having a driver," says Brinker, who had to sleep on a lot of friends' sofas.
But it wasn't until Brinker started his second business in 1999 (the first one imploded under a series of disagreements with his partner) that he really found his stride. With some seed money from his first business, he was able to jump-start BB International, a fledgling operation at first but now a million-dollar operation in Los Angeles for which Brinker designs jewelry that is sold in Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and boutiques across the country.
"Being fired was the best thing that ever happened to me," says Brinker, who feels that without that shove, he wouldn't be where he is today. It was frightening at first, he concedes. "During the first year of starting BB, the money wasn't coming in, and there were weeks that would go by where I'd feel like I was a loser and think that this wasn't going to work. But I'd tell myself that if I could do one important thing a day, whether it was in marketing, cold calling or whatever, I would feel accomplished. Of course, I did 20 things a day. You just end up doing that.
"When you decide to start a business, it's a little like jumping off a cliff," says Brinker. "But the good news is, when you make the jump, you've made the decision. You're falling, and there's no looking back."
What, Me Worry?
Chris Consorte was brought into the HR office. The woman on the other side of the desk was decidedly not pleasant. She did everything but hand him a blindfold and a cigarette.
"I kind of knew it was coming," says Consorte, 31. "Every week, somebody was on the chopping block. I was almost laughing as she was terminating me, and I think she thought it was odd that I wasn't more upset, but I knew it was coming."
Consorte was 26 at the time, and like so many people in the dotcom industry at the turn of the 21st century, the business he worked for had financial problems. Consorte, who was earning a six-figure salary, was an expense the company just didn't need.
Yet being fired was a problem Consorte didn't need. "I decided then that I would never let this happen when I was two to three kids deep, with a $600,000 mortgage and a wife at home," says Consorte. "And so I learned the best lesson I could ever learn in life: You have to depend on yourself."
Today, Consorte is a managing partner of Integrated Direct LLC, a direct-marketing firm in Long Island, New York, that is poised to bring in $2 million in sales before the year is up. While business is booming-the company expects to add 10 more employees to its current staff of 12 before the end of the year--the first few years were difficult. "People were not calling me back," says Consorte, who began the company in 1999, within months of getting fired. "They were worried about their own jobs and [were] not about to take me on for advertising consulting. It took years to find big accounts." That happens to be one reason why, after several months in business, Consorte eagerly partnered with his graduate school pal Andrew Calimino, 38, an entrepreneur with an extensive networking background.
Consorte's immediate thinking--that he would start his own company-shows that he didn't have his identity tied up in his job, which is a very good thing, according to Dr. Lee Jampolsky, a clinical psychologist and author of several inspirational books, including Smile for No Good Reason. "The first thing people have to do is realize that self-worth is not dependent on the job you have. It's the first question you'll get at a cocktail party--What do you do? There's quite a lot of emphasis on that question," says Jampolsky. "But if we tie our self-worth completely to the jobs we have, it's very difficult to recover." (See "Pick Yourself Up" below.)
Consultant Dalton agrees. "You can't stay in the dumps forever, so why not take the next step now? You can stay miserable for two weeks, or get excited, seek better alliances and see this time as an opportunity." It should be noted that Dalton herself was fired years ago--her boss learned from one of Dalton's office colleagues and so-called friends that she was considering striking out on her own, so he helped her along by firing her on the spot.
Some irony, of course, is that if you can avoid the crushing blow of self-doubt and start your own business, you may someday find yourself in the position of having to fire employees. Shaw had to do just that last year. She fired her general manager, who then had the nerve to show up for work the next day. Shaw, however, lost hers and tried to make things work for another few weeks. Finally, she terminated her general manager again-and changed the locks.
On another occasion, after weeks of her staff snipping at each other like high-school students and seeing sales go down, Shaw-in a sign of the times-threatened to terminate her staff and replace them with telemarketers in India. "It was harsh, but it worked," says Shaw. "They all met their sales goals, and now everybody is happy. Being a boss is challenging, but I've learned from places that I've worked to be a better boss than some I've had." But what really has helped Shaw endure the pain of firing somebody else and of looking back at her own employment track record was hearing some good advice from a neighbor.
"She said that if people aren't happy at their jobs, they're going to fire themselves," says Shaw, who recognizes that during her career history, she kept self-terminating her own chances at steady employment, because ultimately, she wanted to work for herself. "I agree. People don't really get fired by other people as much as they fire themselves. I have to admit, thinking about it that way made me feel so much better."
Pick Yourself Up
You've been fired, and for the last few days, you've been on the couch, taking it easy. A little too easy. It's been four days since you last showered. Fortunately, clinical psychologist Dr. Lee Jampolsky has some words of wisdom to consider:
- Forget the poverty mentality. This is easier said than done if you're utterly broke. But if you're constantly thinking "I don't have the money to do this," rather than asking yourself how you can raise funds or start a business cheaply, it's self-defeating.
- Impose a daily structure. Successful people don't sleep in until 11 a.m.
- Let go of your anger and bitterness--right now. "Feeling like a victim will hurt nobody but you," says Jampolsky. "You have to let it go. Sometimes, I'll meet with people who were fired from their jobs, and two years later, they still don't have the jobs they want. One of the first things I notice is that they're still holding grudges and anger about the jobs that they lost."
Speaking of which, Jampolsky advises that if your new business competes against the one you were fired from, try to keep the competition at a healthy level: "If you're constantly thinking 'I'm going to sink the SOB for everything he's done to me,' your success is only going to be sweet for about 10 seconds. Being successful because of another person's suffering is not a real fun sort of success."
In 1996, a bored Geoff Williams was deservedly fired from a teen entertainment magazine where he had worked for three years. He went into freelancing full time and has never looked back. (Well, not much.)
Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.