For Execs, Does Firing Guarantee Future Success?

The current HP logo used on corporate document...

Hewlett Packard

I’ve been wondering …. why is it that once someone reaches a certain level in an organization, it seems that even if they “fail” repeatedly and get fired (sometimes several times), they seem to re-surface months later in a similar (or better) job at another organization?  And what does this say about Boards, CEO’s, and other senior managers that they often put their faith in “re-treads” instead of taking a chance on talented, high-potential (but non-pedigreed) “new blood”?

Case In Point

Last week, Hewlett Packard hired Leo Apotheker as its new CEO — seven months after Mr. Apotheker had been forced out of rival SAP after only seven months at the helm.  While a number of publications have published harsh assessments of Apotheker’s tenure at SAP (and of his chances of succeeding at HP), my purpose isn’t to evaluate his prior performance per se (I don’t know Mr. Apotheker nor do I work in the hi-tech field or have direct insight into it).  Rather, my purpose is to ponder the implications of a very public “failure” leading, only months later to a new and more prestigious role.

Members of the Club

It often seems as though once one has “VP” on their resume, they very rarely if ever “drop down” below that level again.   Why is it that organizations tend to treat executive status as a “club” to which one’s membership card never seems to get revoked? A related question is, why is it that it seems that once one is hired by a “name” organization — IBM, Procter & Gamble, GE, etc. — one keeps getting hired by other “name” organizations, somewhat regardless of one’s actual accomplishments on the job?.

Joe Torre

Exception that proves the rule: Joe Torre went on to great success after multiple firings

We see this often in professional sports, where a baseball manager or football head coach is often fired by one team, only to be re-hired by another team only days or weeks later.  How often does this result in notable success in the next assignment? In my estimation, I would say “rarely.” (Example: Eric Mangini was hired by the Browns less than a week after his firing by the Jets.  He then led the Browns to a rather inglorious 5-11 record in his first year on the job and only very narrowly avoided being fired when a new team President was brought on-board). 

This is by no means an unalterable “rule,” of course — people can and do learn from their mistakes in one venue and move on to greater success in other venues.  Yet and still, I’m hard-pressed to come up with many examples that I’ve personally witnessed where someone fired by one organization immediately goes on to become a “star” in the next organization(s), absent significant soul-searching, reflection, and personal re-invention in the interim.  (Example: Super Bowl winning coach Bill Belichick was fired from his first head coaching job with the Browns and stepped back to become a defensive coordinator with the Jets under mentor Bill Parcells before moving forward to Super Bowl success as the head coach of the Patriots).

Risk Averse or Unspoken Slaves to Status?

If my thesis is correct, why is this?  Is this because hiring committees (e.g., Boards of Directors) are risk averse — preferring a “proven entity” over a “riskier” choice (i.e., someone who has hasn’t yet proven themselves capable of gaining an executive position)?  For all a board’s talk of “independence,” “free thinking,” and the like, does this really indicate that they prefer the safety of taking someone else’s opinion (i.e., “they were good enough to be hired by ABC Company, and that’s a good firm, so they must be good enough to be hired by us”), rather than rely on their own judgement (i.e., by thoroughly examining the candidate against the established criteria for the position)?

In corresponding briefly on this point, blogger Gautam Ghosh suggests (seemingly half-seriously and half-kiddingly) that perhaps it’s because “the regular HR rules don’t apply to CEO’s.”  Yes — perhaps so.  It’s a curious thing, though — how an executive’s prior job titles often seem to outweigh what they objectively accomplished in those jobs.

Going beyond the “safety” / risk aversion issue (which I do believe is a major factor here), I have to wonder if it is an unconscious obeisance to “status” that drives this phenomenon.  While it’s said that a monarchy could never exist in America, I wonder if this is completely true.  We love our heroes — and insofar as business figures take on “godlike” status in our culture in certain ways, I wonder if an unstated love of “status” is part of what drives the recurring hiring of those who’ve been “blessed” as “members of the club” (the opposite of Woody Allen’s line about “not being able to respect any organization that would accept someone like me as a member”).

Implications For HR

Perhaps an “aristocracy” or “old boy’s club” or “pecking order” is just a part of human nature or society (and has been for many millennia).  Most likely, this is the case.  Yet and still, perhaps those of us in HR can do more to recognize this tendency and, in the hiring decisions that we influence, challenge our organizations to dig deeper in assessing potential executives (i.e., while the “rules” might be different for CEO’s, the same principles really should apply).  Is the most important thing driving the hiring decision where the individual has been — or what he or she has accomplished?  Is it a question of title granting entry to certain levels of the organization — or is a matter of demonstrated skill, even if it has been in a “lower” level or capacity?  Does a candidate’s professional “pedigree” matter the most — or do their on-the-job abilities count more?

Aristocracies will always be with us.  Perhaps we in HR can help ensure that our hiring decisions are based on more relevant factors though, for the benefit of all concerned.

* Thanks to Gautam Ghosh for tweeting the original article that generated this musing, and for Karalyn Brown for encouraging its expansion and posting.

6 responses to “For Execs, Does Firing Guarantee Future Success?

  1. @Michael,

    I think for me here’s what it comes down to: Success at one organization does not necessarily equal success at another. Different culture. Different circumstances. Just different.

    Similarly, failure at one organization doesn’t necessarily equal failure at another.

    I hear what you’re saying about the “executive club.” But doesn’t failure come with taking risks? Isn’t it a key part of innovation? Do we want executives who play it safe all the time?

    Interesting post – definitely forces you to think!

    – Chris

    • Chris,

      Excellent points — especially re: how sometimes taking risks (a good thing) leads to firings (thus, the firing not necessarily being an indication of lack of talent). To expand one thought: I don’t mean to imply that being fired should DISQUALIFY someone from being hired in the future … just that the prior executive title shouldn’t necessarily QUALIFY them, either.

      Thanks so much for contributing to the conversation — much appreciated!


      ** BTW … I hit the “publish” button too early … I think I may have added a few thoughts after you submitted your comment. Thanks again for chiming in.

  2. Michael,

    You’re right! The version I read was a few paragraphs shy of the finished version, which definitely clarifies or expands upon your earlier thoughts.

    Well done – I think we’re on the same page here!


  3. Hi Michael,

    Thanks for mentioning me on your post. Very interesting!

    My take is that I think at any level people rely on their networks and friendships to find roles. When you have the bedrock of friendship any past failure can be seen in the context of that friendship, and as an aberration to someone’s normally strong skills. Or it could simply be “I’ll scratch your back and you scratch mine” type mentality. I worked at one place where a very senior manager was appointed as he was a golf buddy of the CEO. That turned out to be a disaster, partly as he was the wrong cultural fit. However the organisation was such that very few people would challenge the CEO. I think also that reasons for “failure” are complex, what you may hear publicly could be completely different from the entire story.

    Love your blog. Keep up the good work.


  4. Pingback: Why do failed CEOs keep getting chances? | HR india

  5. Hello Michael,
    Thanks for your insight. I found it very interesting. Executives can and should re invent themselves. I have no issue with a candidate that was terminated unless of course it was for something illegal etc. So more power to them. I always think big name VPs benefit from the “Looks like a duck, talks like a duck, must be a duck” manner of thinking… you know, if he helped (blue chip co) he sure can help us. Again not a huge problem in selection as long as the due diligence on the termed exec was done early. Remember when a company needs leadership, they look for leadership in previous job titles. Nothing says leader than CEO or President.

    By the way, talk about survivors, I studied 200 CEO resumes a while back and the average length of employment was 18 months. Usually, the next position was President or CEO. Call it the CEO Bench!


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