Career Advice for Modern Times

The new CEO of a high-tech company was going through a tough year. Sales and profits were down, and he was worried about his company, but not about his job.

When I asked him why he wasn’t worried about his job, he said, “I just got here. The board is at least going to give me a chance.”

He then told me a classic joke the previous CEO had told him. “A new CEO met privately with his predecessor on his first day in charge. The CEO who was stepping down presented him with three numbered envelopes. ‘Open these — one at a time — and only when you run up against a crisis that seems beyond your control,’ he said.

“Things went along pretty smoothly, but six months later, sales took a downturn and he was catching a lot of heat. He remembered the envelopes. He went to his drawer and took out the first envelope. The message read, ‘Blame the previous CEO!’

“The new CEO called a press conference and tactfully laid the blame at the feet of the previous CEO. Satisfied with his comments, the media and Wall Street responded positively, sales began to pick up, and the problem was soon behind him.

“A couple of years later, the company was hit again with a dip in sales combined with serious product problems. The CEO thought, ‘Aha! Time for envelope two!’ The CEO opened the second envelope. The message read, ‘Blame the economy!’ This seemed to work fine. He was ready for another business cycle.

“After several consecutive profitable quarters, the company once again fell on difficult times. The CEO closed his office door and opened the third envelope. “The message said, ‘Prepare three envelopes!’

“You see, Marshall,” he concluded. “I’m on my first envelope.”

I’d heard the joke before, but it’s a great reminder that we shouldn’t panic after our first setback. The world can be tough and competitive, but more often than not, it’s at least a little forgiving. The challenge for today’s world is that your three envelopes may get used up faster than ever before.

My career advice is simple. Do your best to read the tea leaves. Don’t panic when you are new, yet don’t get lost in your own ego. If you think your time may be coming to an end, it probably is. Leave the company on positive terms before the company leaves you on negative terms.

When I talked to people on Wall Street during the upheavals of 2008 and 2009, I found what upset many laid-off employees was not the loss of income or the sense of betrayal by their bosses or not having a job. The biggest hurt was the loss of identity. Their jobs at firms like the now-defunct Lehman Bros. or Bear Stearns were badges that announced who they were. Without them, they felt unmoored, confused, unsure.

This was startling to me because, with all the media stories about how we’re an economy of “free agents” hopscotching from job to job selling our services to the highest bidder, it’s easy to forget the majority of workers don’t think of themselves as free agents. According to statistics, they like being rooted to one company. The average length of an American worker’s stay at one company is still 13 years.

I don’t have an immediate cure for lost identity. The best advice I can offer is: Accept that identifying with your vanished job is pointless; quickly transfer your affections to something else. It might be a new job or a startup business. But it could be volunteer work, or devoting yourself to a new hobby or fitness regimen. Anything is better than bitterness, anger or pining for old times that are not coming back.

When you look for a new position, focus on what you can contribute — not just what you did at the old firm. Be prepared for the possibility of “moving down” — at least short-term. If you prove what you can do in the new firm, you can get back to where you were. If you believe you can start where you were, you might end up with nothing.