Companies & Industries

You Lost -- Now What?


By Liz Ryan The further you advance in your business career, the more pitches, proposals, and recommendations you'll serve to your bosses for acceptance or rejection. And unless you're prematurely content with the status quo and/or uncommonly risk-averse, it's enevitable: From time to time, you'll stake some brownie points on a winner-take-all plan, a strategic direction, or a bid for a key job.

Sometimes, you'll prevail. Other times, you won't -- whereupon you'll face one of your most emotionally trying career experiences. At such times, it's normal to feel like a fool. Your failure is exposed for all to see. And you can't help wondering what that means for you, long-term. It's an awful sensation.

You'll probably be angry with those who shot you down and jealous of whoever trumped you. You'll vow to short the company's stock and go work for its nearest competitor, or at least think bad thoughts about the organization forever. Perhaps you'll feel so terrible that you'll consider quitting on the spot.

Well, don't do any of this, at least not abruptly and in a huff. You'll be amazed at how quickly these feelings pass. Your career isn't over, probably not even stalled. Faster than you imagine, you can again become a Golden Boy or Gal -- if you display maturity and poise. In fact, your ability to play (and truly be) a gracious loser will speak volumes about your suitability as a future team member and leader.

Here are some ideas for getting back on track quickly:

Don't take it personally. I learned this years ago from a fantastic voice coach (when I'm not writing workplace-advice columns, I sing opera). When you go to an audition, she said, you don't know what the director is looking for. You may sing beautifully and not get hired. Your voice may be lighter or darker than the sound the impresario is seeking. You may be too short, too tall, or too anything else.

You can tie yourself in knots second-guessing the decisionmaker. But if the director wants Cheerios, and you're Frosted Flakes, you aren't going to get hired, and that's that. It doesn't mean that you should change your sound, your repertoire, or anything else. Just keep getting better at what you already do.

Business is pretty much the same. You can regard the rejection of your proposal, which was clearly superior to Susan's, as a sign that the senior leaders are idiots. Ditto for the decision to hire that dimwit Doris over you -- yeah, the same Doris who needed three tries to pass the CPA exam. But you don't know all the facts -- your knowledge is partial at best. So forget the righteous indignation and focus on something more constructive, such as learning from the experience.

Ask for feedback. That means asking questions. Humbly and without rancor, approach your boss and others who influenced the decision and request their input. You may learn that Susan's proposal, while lacking the detail and intellectual rigor of yours, will cost far less to implement. You may learn that while you and Doris were viewed as equally qualified for the controller spot, Doris has international experience and you don't.

Who knows what you'll learn. But a lot of listening at this stage can help you feel better about the outcome, and give you something to focus on for the future.

Be gracious. When you're able to, approach the victor and offer congratulations. Your job isn't to persuade the person that you really believe the decision was correct, but to simply say that you're pleased for them and will support them. Wait to say this until you can more or less mean it. And don't do it in public -- you're not trying to gain sympathy or credit for your professionalism. But your business judgment and breeding will show in the way you respond.

Adjust. You were so sure that you were going to come out on top -- how do you now change your thinking? Let the implications sink in. You thought you would get the job that Doris got, and now you'll be sending weekly status reports to her. Or you expected to be on a plane to China next week checking out fabrication plants, and now it's Susan who'll be on her way. Here's what often happens, and it'll require you to adapt:

Over time, the best elements of your plan will be implemented. Unfortunately, people probably won't say: "Gee, wasn't this your idea originally?" But that's O.K. The important thing is that the business will benefit from the concept you put forward -- and you'll look great for supporting the team and putting its needs before your own.

If it's a promotion you were after, ask your boss to tell you what it'll take for you to get the nod next time. He or she should be able to give you good pointers and, with luck, a time frame for your next step up.

THE HIGH ROAD. If not -- if the idea that you would want and expect this information immediately after losing a bid for promotion comes as a surprise, or if the boss has no insight to offer you -- then you may want to consider opportunities outside this manager's purview or outside the organization. It's a big world.

If you do move on, be sure that in explaining your resignation you focus on future opportunities, not on past disappointments. You don't want to look like a spoiled kid taking his bat and going home.

In the meantime, grit your teeth and take the high road. You could end up where you want to be before the next season of The Sopranos. When you think of it that way, it doesn't seem so difficult to keep your cool, now does it? Do you have any great business leadership tips to share with BusinessWeek Online's readers? Send them to Liz Ryan, an at-work expert, speaker, and writer, and CEO of online networking organization WorldWIT


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