The shockwaves of Cyrus Mistry’s departure as Chairman of the Tata Group are still reverberating throughout the corporate world. It has lessons for all of us, as students and as leaders.
With the pace of changes in today’s world and volatility in business, being fired is less of an ‘if’ event and more of ‘when’. It is independent of competence. It could happen to anybody as changes in the business climate, leadership, strategy and industry trends extract a toll on leaders.
The Tata incident has lessons for us on how much more graceful the process could have been. Whatever their reason, the Board could have been more tactful in the way Mistry was made to leave. Mistry himself could have been more graceful in his reaction to the exit. Both sides did not ‘cover themselves in glory’, to quote a phrase from Mistry’s letter to the Board. But what lessons are there for us when we face that difficult day?
Handling the emotion
When you type with your fists, you don’t end up with great letters. Mistry’s letter is a case in point. The indignation and anger comes through, the sense of being wronged and let down is apparent. The reaction is that of hitting back and of putting the former employer down.
Perhaps some space between incident and the reaction could have led to a wiser and more dignified response. Heated emotions lead to burning bridges that could have been crossed. It leads to clouded judgement and poor communication.
One of the biggest reasons for the emotional reaction is the perceived knock to self-worth — being fired is seen as humiliating, as unjust, as failure. It is at this time that a dedication to the truth is important. I am not my role, my title, my job, my perks, my achievements — all these being downgraded or taken away from me does not diminish me.
Harvard Professor Emeritus Abraham Zaleznik gives us a powerful insight that could help us navigate the darkness of this situation: “Leaders are ‘twice born’ individuals, who endure major events that lead to a sense of separateness, or perhaps estrangement from their environments. As a result, they turn inward in order to emerge with a created rather than an inherited sense of identity.”
A tough time such as losing your job can serve that noble purpose of helping you turn inward and emerge with that ‘created’ rather than ‘inherited identity’. If that results in something positive and substantial, then the loss of a job is a small price to pay.
This lesson we should learn early by training ourselves in typical crisis situations is to handle our emotions better. A lost election at college, a poor grading on a project, a rejection at a placement interview — all these could be triggers for an emotional upheaval.
Instead, if we see them for what they are and not as attacks on our self-worth and self-image, then a more measured response will emerge and we would have prepared better for the tough times that will inevitably crop up in our careers.
Harvesting the learning
The experience, though difficult, most often comes laden with lessons; when we have the wisdom and patience to sift for them. It can tell me a lot about myself, and a lot about others.
Nirmalya Kumar, a former member of Tata Sons’ recently disbanded group executive council (GEC), published a blog post reflecting on his own firing. “Once fired, you discover your friends and the integral qualities of those who worked with you. The interesting insight for me was that the higher in the organisation you go, this “human” aspect declines”. This is an important lesson to carry forward to your next assignment.
Going back to Mistry’s departure and lessons he could have gleaned — could he have handled the relationship and the communication with Tata better? Could he have read some of the early signals of distrust and non-alignment? Could he have listened to different voices that may not have agreed with his? Could he have sold his vision better? Could he have allayed fears better? Could he have set expectations when starting out with more clarity?
Such posers will occupy our minds when we create a habit of self-examination and reflection. If I can ask questions like this today, when I fail or face disappointment and lose out, then I’ve set in place a process of learning that will serve me well tomorrow.
Another important aspect is whether I can stand by my principles in the time of crisis. A job firing can turn calm and quiet individuals into violent lunatics, and turn somebody who has always spoken with respect into someone who unleashes a torrent of abuse. A crisis tests character like nothing else does. So this is the time to really stand up for those principles you held dear. Your principles are really not yours till you’ve paid a price for them. Until then, they are just great sound bites.
In the movie Up in the Air , Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney, works for a firm that specialises in laying off people. He summarises to a new colleague what they do. “We are here to make limbo tolerable, to ferry wounded souls across the river of dread until the point where hope is dimly visible. And then stop the boat, shove them in the water and make them swim.”
That last part is important. Once we’re off the boat, how do we focus on swimming ahead, on finding the next boat, instead of clinging to the old one?
A right place to start would be to stop defining ourselves by what we do but instead by what we have. A banking analyst who’s just been laid off can either keep looking for new banking analyst jobs or ask herself what skills she has: “I’m comfortable with numbers, I’m great at analysis, I work well in a team, I’ve handled clients well”. Suddenly, new opportunities appear that were unseen before. As John W Gardner put it, “We are all continually faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as insoluble problems”.