Executive Comeback Kit


How Great Leaders Rebound

After Career Disasters

By Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and Andrew Ward

Harvard Business School; 306pp; $29.95

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Editor's Review

Three Stars
Star Rating

The Good A smart roadmap to career recovery for deposed CEOs.

The Bad The prose is sometimes overwrought?and some material is a bit too familiar.

The Bottom Line A persuasive brief on the damage firings can cause.

April may be cruel, but January was hardly kind, either, at least to a few high-profile executives. On Jan. 31, Dell (DELL ) announced that founder Michael S. Dell would regain the CEO title, pushing out Kevin Rollins. Just nine days earlier, Gap (GPS ) said its embattled CEO, Paul Pressler, would be leaving the retailer. And on Jan. 3, Home Depot's board started the New Year off with a bang, bidding adieu to controversial Chief Executive Robert L. Nardelli.

Nardelli, of course, did walk out the door with a champagne-toast-worthy $210 million. But if that's not enough to cushion the blow, he, along with the many other managers who've lost their jobs as the rate of executive turnover has spiralled upward, may find further consolation in a new book by Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and Andrew Ward called Firing Back: How Great Leaders Rebound After Career Disasters. A sophisticated self-help guide for the fallen chief executive, Firing Back is a smart, if at times overwrought, analysis of the leader's road to recovery. Using accounts of tragic failures and triumphant returns, the authors get inside the mind of the humbled executive and provide a framework for rebuilding a reputation that will be of interest to any manager.

Sonnenfeld, a senior associate dean at the Yale School of Management, and Ward, a management professor at the University of Georgia, organize much of the book around a five-step plan for recovery. To begin with, they advise shamed leaders to fight the urge to flee to a remote enclave. Instead, they should recruit acquaintances to speak out carefully on their behalf. The rest of the book is structured around four barriers to recovering from a career disaster: societal, organizational, psychological, and reputational.

One of the most compelling chapters looks at the potentially reputation-damaging causes of a CEO's departure and how these could have an impact on any chance for a rebound. Sonnenfeld and Ward surveyed 45 elite executive recruiters on how different types of forced exits influence a former CEO's career opportunities. Interestingly, these "gatekeepers" said firings for cause, such as poor performance or improper conduct, make it even harder to get seats on boards than to get a chief executive spot at another company. (No word on how such negatives might affect prized private equity postings.)

The authors' examination of organizational barriers that result from company or industry cultures is equally engaging. They begin with a typology of cultures ranging from "baseball teams" to "academies," "clubs," and "fortresses." This provides a fresh perspective on one of the business world's squishiest subjects. Then Sonnenfeld and Ward describe how in industries marked, for example, by "baseball team" cultures, such as software or entertainment, a failure is easier to overcome, because these fields experience constant change and movement of executives between companies.

The book is at its best when it offers personal reflections from leaders, whether famous or anonymous, who have failed and started over. "The day I was fired, I was in tears," says David Neeleman, the founder and CEO of JetBlue Airways (JBLU ) who in 1994 was ousted from Southwest Airlines (LUV ), which had bought his first company, Morris Air. "I was angry and...determined that we would do something better than Southwest. With nine kids at home, my wife thought there was no need to get right back in."

Still, the volume would have benefited from even more such introspection. The authors often jump quickly from one famous name to the next, and the stories can feel repetitive. The authors also rely heavily on previously reported material.Examples such as Martha Stewart and Jeffrey Katzenberg feel overly familiar.

Some readers will cringe at the frequent use of the word "heroic" to describe CEOs' "mission" and "stature." Such grandiose terminology may flatter some chiefs, but it's a hard adjective to swallow in an era of scandal-tainted, lavishly compensated executives.

Still, even if the language is sometimes inflated, Firing Back makes a persuasive case about the psychological damage firings can cause, and it will resonate with readers whose careers have suffered setbacks. Many leaders' identities are closely intertwined with organizations they've run. And because their firings are often executed by a group of people (the board of directors), victims are less able to rationalize an ouster as due to the whim of an unfair manager. "Add to this the glare of publicity that surrounds the leader's public exit," the authors write, "and the realities...become inescapable." Fortunately, as Firing Back's authors outline, there is a road to recovery.

By Jena McGregor

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