"We have found somebody to replace you."
These are words of rejection that nobody ever wants to hear from his or her boss, but the very same are what I received early in my career as a young professional. As I discovered, they were also the words that turned out to be the most profound and helpful words in my career.
Of course, context is important. At the time, I was still rather young and had been promoted to a managerial operations position, responsible for decisions that affected over half the budget of a multi-million construction firm. I was one of the youngest people to fill this position in my industry, and in my opinion, I was having a positive impact.
Early in the year, I applied to a full time MBA program, really out of curiosity more than pragmatism. Because I was doing well in my position, had just purchased a new house and signed a new car lease, I really had no intention of going back to school. In doing so, however, I had to ask my boss for a letter of reference, which I did without thought of consequence.
A few months later, my boss called me into his office very officially, complete with a "please close the door." My relationship with management was very amenable, and I actually laughed at the perceived severity. My department was humming without incident, so clearly this was just an innocent conversation that required privacy.
He launched right into our talk by saying, "I realize you are going back to school later this summer, so we have the rare opportunity to hire someone to work with you over the next several months to transition your responsibilities."
While not his exact words, it was the message, and while my brain heard the words, my emotions heard, "You're fired."
I remember my ears filling with blood, muffling all sounds around me as I contemplated the idea of being fired from my job. I panicked, and quickly pleaded to not proceed with this plan of action, because I was sure I would not be accepted to my MBA program. I had taken the GMAT with no preparation, and I submitted my completed application late. To make matters worse, I applied to a great program that accepted less than 20 percent of candidates.
Seeing my stress, my boss calmly said something that I do remember clearly, "I know that you really want to go back to school. You talk about it a lot. Even if you do not get in, apply next year and go. It is what you want to do."
I ended up being accepted to Georgetown that summer, and my severance agreement graciously offered by my boss was enough to support me my first year. Attending graduate school in Washington, DC opened up doors for me that would have never been available had I stayed in my previous job, as I am sure I would have done. To this day, I still attribute "being fired" as being the single most important event of my professional career. It was a catalyst that taught me that failures and setbacks are nothing more than opportunities.
I tell this story often to aspiring business leaders worried about repercussions of taking a significant risk or considering a change in their career. I also use it to remind myself when my career seems to be in flux.
So, if you find yourself in a position where you were recently rejected, or if you are assessing a significant life change, here are a couple of takeaways to consider.
Blame and Timing
Regardless of what happens in your career, resist the urge to blame others for your predicament.
Your boss fired you for seemingly petty reasons.
Your colleague was promoted over you.
You did not get that job you really wanted.
Instead of finding reasons why others are responsible for these rejections, ask yourself if they happened for a bigger reason. Maybe it was time for your to consider other options? Maybe there are other options right in front of you?
From my experience, all your focus on this one issue blinds you to the opportunities that sit just in the peripheral.
Passion and Perseverance
These two characteristics are the most common in every successful individual I know. I never tell others to quit a job to pursue a dream, but I do advise that, in my experience, when you find passion and perseverance within yourself, landing on your feet naturally follows any move you will make.
Relevancy and Engagement
The best way to handle career rejection is to be in charge of your career. This does not necessarily mean quitting your job and becoming self employed, but rather that if you control your career by maintaining your skills curating other opportunities, rejection just means that it is time to take advantage of them.
Today, professions and industries change every couple of years, and the next generation of leaders and consumers are fickle and more regularly changing careers. The best way to control your destiny is to control your career, and that means continuous self improvement and building a professional network that you can tap into when needed.
What do you think? How have you taken control of your career or handled professional rejection? Please share your thoughts with me on Twitter.