You've just received word that you've been fired. Or perhaps the company has gone through a re-structuring and eliminated your job — and you've been told that none of the managers you've worked with over the years have a position for you on their team. This comes as a shock to your system, especially if you've enjoyed a record of success up to this point in your career. While there are some practical things to attend to — negotiating your severance, signing up references, and agreeing with the company on a storyline about the reason for your exit — your most important action item is managing your own attitude to the situation.
Your first step is realizing that you're not alone. Although they don't trumpet the fact for obvious reasons, most successful senior executives have hit speed bumps in the course of their careers. As search consultants will tell you, experiencing a setback doesn't have to be terminal — if you're able to move forward productively.
As you dust yourself off, think through those parts of the situation you need to own. In a highly emotional state, it's too easy for you to curse the darkness: "I had a bad boss." "The place was rife with organizational politics." "My colleagues were non-cooperative and had it in for me." There may be some truth to this, but you also need to ask yourself, "What do I need to accept about the experience to avoid making the same mistakes so I can succeed in the future?"
Even in the best of times, the vast majority of organizations do a poor job of giving people constructive feedback, and companies are even less inclined to provide useful feedback when showing someone the door. Still, think carefully about the messages you have received, however oblique, to see if you can identify issues you need to be alert to. For example, if you developed a reputation for having sharp elbows and were too frequently involved in unresolved conflict with people from other departments, you may well need to improve your skills in influence, collaboration, and conflict management. If you tend to be a perfectionist and were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of deadlines and tasks, you may need to work on delegation and building a team you can rely on.
Or perhaps the problem was not so much one of lack of skills as of fit. If you found yourself frustrated by the organization's constant demands for quick, one-off solutions unlikely to add value over the long term, you may be a "craftsman" who'll do better in a slower-paced company where management values well-designed and thoroughly integrated programs. Or if you found that constantly communicating and vetting your ideas in a large, bureaucratic organization was tedious, perhaps you should consider a smaller, more entrepreneurial company.
Once you've gleaned the two or three key lessons you should draw from your experience, move forward and don't wallow in self-doubt or what might have been. You don't want to ignore important messages about what will be required to succeed in your next job or that will help you target the best type of organization. However, your most valuable commodity is self-confidence. so don't let that be eroded. As painful as your departure may be, with the right attitude and reflection you'll take away some important lessons that can give direction and focus to the rest of a highly successful career.