Travis Kalanick and Jeff Immelt are two of America’s best known CEOs and both are walking away from their jobs under a cloud. Kalanick, founder of Uber, will be taking a personal leave to grieve following the death of his mother and, after a series of embarrassing stories, will take a diminished role when he returns. Immelt is retiring amid several stories concluded that his tenure at GE didn’t provide much in the way of value for shareholders.
That’s not necessarily the best way to cement a legacy. In fact, it’s an awful way to go out.
But here’s the good news: It’s not the end for either of them.
In fact, it’s the beginning of the second act.
If we judged people or brands by how they started, rather than finished, the Atlanta Falcons would be visiting Jeb Bush at the White House to celebrate the 2017 Super Bowl win. Yogi Berra’s famous admonition that “It ain’t over til it’s over” is less cliché than a commandment. It is how we finish our careers that counts most, and how we live our lives and evangelize what’s important until the very moment we pass at death into the peace of Heaven. No matter what crisis negatively affects our lives, careers or businesses, we have the power to ensure those problems don’t define us.
That’s where the art of the second act comes in. After any reputational crisis, it’s important to work hard to move beyond the negativity. Jamie Dimon is arguably one of the best and most enduring CEOs in financial services, but he ignominiously was fired from Citigroup because of clashes with his superiors, who didn’t think he could advance. Neither Martha Stewart nor Michael Milken let federal convictions and prison sentences define their careers. Both came back even stronger.
You can come back after a crisis, personal or professional. But you have to have a plan to maximize the second act after a crisis.
Fix Your Problem
Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, go to hell. If you really want to come back from a crisis, you have to first ensure that whatever problems that precipitated the fall from grace don’t repeat themselves. If you’ve developed a reputation as a sloppy executive who is constantly being accused of inappropriate behavior, like Kalanick, you have to fix that. Hire an executive coach. Hire a shrink. Commit to being a better leader. Whatever the issue, the first step of getting out of a hole is to stop digging. You will never come back if you don’t fix the underlying problem.
You need to aggressively commit to your second act. That means fighting hard to restore your reputation. It also means deciding what your new story is. Michael Milken didn’t come back as another bond trader. He came back as a thoughtful leader who wanted to cure the cancer that had ravaged him. You can’t make your past go away, but you can change the dialogue about who you are and what you stand for.
Find a New Audience
Don’t think you have to change the minds of your detractors. An easier approach is to find new audiences who don’t come with embedded biases. That could mean switching careers or industries. Chuck Colson was a White House operative responsible for many of the worst excesses of the Watergate era and ended up in prison shortly before President Richard Nixon resigned. He emerged from prison an evangelical Christian, and founded a network of prison-based ministries. When he died in 2012, many of the prisoners he helped never cared what landed him behind bars to begin with.
Indulge in Your Passions
And Colson’s experience – as well as Milken’s – illuminates another strategy for successful second acts after a crisis: Believe in what you do. Elon Musk’s first career was founding PayPal. His latest businesses – changing the way we consume our earth’s resources (Tesla) and reinvigorating our need to explore the vastness of space (SpaceX) – have won him accolades for the passion he brings to the mission. You will be judged more for the passion and ideals you bring than the money you leave in your brokerage account when you are moldering in the ground of some forgotten churchyard cemetery.
Get an Outside Perspective
We sometimes don’t know our own value. When we look in the mirror, we often see a flawed human others don’t see. It’s important to bring in outside help to see your story in a way that understands the audiences you want to reach. Particularly while a crisis is still fresh, we often let the pessimism of human nature block the sunlight that can illuminate a better path for our time, our talent and our treasure. It never hurts to engage another set of eyes to take a true measure of who we are.
This is a country of second chances. It’s how we were founded. The first boatloads of Europeans who settled here and established America were filled with criminals, liars, cheats and rakes, but our unexplored shores provided a second chance. George Washington himself would always be a colonel with a spotty military record in the eyes of the British army. To Americans, he is our savior, even though he lost more battles than he won.