CIO

You're Fired! What a High-Profile Termination Means to a Career and Tips for Rebounding from Controversy

Executive recruiters say a public firing such as Microsoft's ex-CIO Stuart Scott endured can seriously injure a career but doesn't have to end one.

Getting fired in a very public manner the way former Microsoft CIO Stuart Scott was earlier this week can have a devastating impact on an executive's career but doesn't have to be the end of it, say recruiters.

Executives looking to rebound from a termination scandal must be honest with potential employers about the circumstances surrounding their departure, recruiters unanimously say. They also need to adopt a liberal definition of "rebound" to keep their career options open: It may mean relocating, switching industries or moving into an entirely different profession.

If the executive had a good reputation prior to the termination -- was admired for his performance, projected a positive leadership personality -- his professional history will aid in his recovery.

"There's a long list of people who have had pretty terrible ousters and not recovered from them," says Martha Heller, managing director of ZRG's IT leadership practice. "But executives can recover if they play their cards right," she adds. (Heller is also a career columnist for CIO.)

Three executive recruiters CIO.com interviewed believe Scott, whom Microsoft fired earlier this month, will land on his feet for that reason. Microsoft issued a statement on Tuesday confirming that it had terminated Scott's employment after a corporate investigation revealed he had violated company policies. Microsoft did not elaborate on the specific violation. The company updated Scott's bio page on its website on November 5, 2007, to note that Scott was no longer working for the company.

David Reff, president of executive recruitment firm David Reff & Co., says Scott's 17-year tenure at GE and his Vanderbilt MBA will be assets as he moves forward. "The future is still open for this guy because of his background and pedigree," he says. "He can write a book, join the boards of companies or he can get into consulting."

Shawn Banerji, a recruiter with Russell Reynolds Associates, doesn't think this incident is going to kill Scott's career. "He's not going to be a pariah sitting on the sideline for the rest of his life," he says. "It will take time and healing, but I am sure in due course this will be a thing of the past. The reality is, very few things in society today are terminal."

Banerji and Reff think Scott may even be able to get another CIO job.

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The Damage a Public Firing Can Do If You're Not Careful

Companies have good reason not to go near an executive who's been through a high-profile termination. For one, they don't want to attract negative attention to themselves by bringing on someone whose reputation has been tarnished by a high-profile ouster -- even if the executive did nothing wrong or simply played the fall guy in an internal political battle. They don't want to have to explain to business partners, customers and the media why they hired someone whose credibility has been called into question by a public ousting.

What's more, hiring such an executive is a risk, says Sam Gordon, an executive recruiter with Harvey Nash. If the executive gets fired again or caught up in scandal, the company and individual who hired him will be implicated in the controversy. Watchdogs will point their fingers at the company and CEO and say they should have known better. "It's a very brave CEO who hires a CIO who has been through a public firing," says Gordon. "This is corporate America: People [doing the hiring] want to protect their positions and mange their careers."

Another reason why companies stay away from candidates who've been publicly fired, says Gordon, is because the stigma may hamper those individuals' effectiveness on the job. Even a small amount of bad press can damage someone's reputation, he says. It makes starting a new job that much more difficult.

"They're going to find it much harder to win the trust of the business," says Gordon. "Establishing credibility with the business is any CIO's biggest challenge coming into a new job. Having been very publicly fired magnifies the challenge tenfold."

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SIDEBAR: Stuart Scott's Background

Executive recruiters say that Scott, ousted from his job as Microsoft's CIO, may be able to rely on his executive track record to rebound. That track record includes:

Education: Bachelor's and master's degrees in engineering, mathematics and computer science from the University of Louisville. MBA from Vanderbilt University.

Employment: 2005-2007, CIO, Microsoft. 1987 to 2004: Positions at General Electric, rising to divisional CIO. Other accomplishments: Scott is a Six Sigma black belt and a graduate of GE's Leadership Development Program. Note: Scott took a short break from his employment at GE to work at now-defunct Webvan.com before returning to GE.

Source: Microsoft, CIO reporting


SIDEBAR: Tips for Recovering From a Firing

To rise above a high-profile termination, redeem one's reputation and ensure one has a career moving forward, an executive has to handle the aftermath and the consequences of the termination with care.

1. Tell the Truth Executives who've been fired often try to keep such negative facts about their work history secret because they know how difficult landing a new job will be. But not being honest with executive recruiters and potential employers will backfire. The truth always comes out; executive recruiters say executives should fess up to the truth, no matter how unsavoury it may be.

Harvey Nash's Gordon knows of a CIO, whom he declined to name, who lost his job his first day because he never told his new employer during the interview process that he had been fired from his previous job. The employer found out about the termination when, that day, an IT employee searched the Web for information about the new CIO and uncovered the circumstances surrounding the CIO's departure from his last company. Gordon says the company retracted the job offer because executives there felt they couldn't trust the new CIO.

2. Don't Point Fingers Of course, there is a dignified way to present the unpleasant facts about your career, and that's by taking the high road and avoiding finger-pointing, says ZRG's Heller. Blaming others won't earn you much respect, she says. "Everybody understands that it takes two to tango, and getting fired does not necessarily mean that the executive [in question] is at fault," adds Heller.

3. Take Responsibility for Mistakes Some "mistakes" are easier to rebound from than others. For instance, if a CIO has to play the scapegoat for taking a risk on a technology investment that had a potentially high upside but that didn't play out, he can walk away from the experience with his dignity intact, says Gordon. But if the CIO's integrity comes into question or there's any hint of a scandal surrounding his actions, a recovery will be much harder, he says.

4. Keep All Options on the Table Whether a CIO has botched an ERP implementation, burned political bridges or violated HR policies, his best bet for finding a new job is relocating (possibly to a new country, depending on the extent of the damage) and/or switching to a new market sector, says Gordon.

5. Keep That Network Humming The strength of an executive's relationships with individuals in his network can also help him weather a storm and transition to his next position. People who know the executive well can vouch for his character, expertise and ability to learn lessons.

Gordon also has advice for companies doing the firing: "If it's not handled delicately, and they don't let that person go with their professional dignity intact, it's going to reflect badly on the company and reduces their chances of hiring someone of high calibre into that position in the future."