For every big-name CFO whose name disgraced the evening news in recent years, many more law-abiding finance folks have sullied their reputations in subtle ways.
The causes are usually mundane — yet often the person in question simply doesn’t recognize the problem, or doesn’t believe that anything can be done. “This is typical; I hear this all the time,” says Pam Lassiter, a Boston-based executive coach. “But you can manage your reputation.”
Whether that person is you or someone you know, the career experts we consulted for this article returned to one theme again and again — only you can take the initiative to get your career back on course. After all, should the job market continue to show signs of picking up, you wouldn’t want to miss the boat.
Get a Clue
Ask any career coach or recruiter about how to set a career awry, and you’ll hear about the finance executive who is clueless about working with other people.
Dr. Steven Berglas — a psychiatrist, an executive coach, and the author of Reclaiming the Fire, about recovery from career burnout — says that a clash of egos is the most common reason finance executives get fired. One of his former clients was a brilliant CFO with a stellar academic pedigree. “But he was the most controlling S.O.B,” says Berglas. “Everyone who reported to him hated him.” Eventually “John” (as we’ll call him) became so hated that he was dismissed. This was the third consecutive position he lost for that same reason.
For John, repairing his reputation as a difficult manager meant taking a step that may sound frightening to many finance executives: He took two years off to figure out what went wrong. During this time Berglas coached John and administered psychotherapy. With Berglas’s help, John “is still a control freak,” but he has learned to ask for more frequent updates on his staff’s work. This allows him to catch things going wrong early and offer more-tempered and productive responses. The criticism comes across as creative feedback, rather than a red-faced, smoke-blowing tantrum after the work is completed.
Examining and addressing problems, as John did, is the first step to repairing a damaged image, advises executive coach Linda Dominguez. “If you have a reputation for being difficult,” says the author of How to Shine at Work, “you really need to stop and take a look at why. You can’t just ‘not do’ the offending behavior anymore.”
Trying simply to “not do” certain behavior landed one senior finance executive in Dominguez’s office. “Marge,” according to her 360-degree feedback report, was difficult, fastidious to a fault, and bent on proving others wrong while insisting she was right.
Indeed, proving others wrong was how she chose to respond to the feedback report. She decided that going forward, she would be nice; “she put on a happy face,” says Dominguez. The act lasted about three weeks. Meanwhile, as her superiors and the CEO continued to study the feedback reports, they concluded that Marge was a problem for the organization. In a meeting with Marge, the CEO insisted that she correct this problem or face termination. He gave her 60 days and Dominguez’s number.