Elegy for a Fired Executive

Our chief executive's e-mail hit our desktops over lunch. Entangled in another restructuring, we'd anxiously awaited word on our fates. A year earlier, we were jacked about the possibilities. Everything was projected to fall into place: landmark releases, beefed-up infrastructure, and a welcoming marketplace. This was our year to clean up, we thought. What could possibly go wrong? Plenty, we learned. And we had to brace for the fourth-quarter fallout. Instead of planning Caribbean vacations, we updated our résumés.

Mercifully, our CEO's message seemed fairly benign. He cataloged revised org charts and touted the credentials of those workers the company had elevated. In fact, we nearly missed the three lines signaling the most profound change. Buried near the end, our CEO noted that our president, Curt, was leaving to pursue other opportunities; he thanked Curt for his service.

Of course, Curt wasn't just another guy who'd lost his seat in corporate musical chairs. He was our guy. We all knew his story. Thirty years earlier, Curt started as a lowly analyst. Over time, he climbed the ladder, making far more friends than enemies. Despite his view of the world from a windowed office in a midtown skyscraper, he remained down to earth. Everyone had a story about him. To newcomers, Curt was the guy who reached out, asked about their lives, and made them feel special. To veterans, he was a reminder that life was occasionally fair, that they, too, could reach the top. Either way, Curt served as the warm, fleshy palm of an impersonal hierarchy; he made the company feel like a home.

A Life of Nomadic Sacrifice

Curt was the proverbial company man. I imagined his days of bouncing around the globe, dropping into hot spots, racing from one engagement to the next. Suffering from unrelenting jet lag, he spent his nights replying to e-mails as his people slept. It was a life of nomadic sacrifice: relocations, missed celebrations, and divorces. Curt was forever chasing, looking to add another bullet point or fill another gap. He endured the highs and lows and outlasted the contenders who came and went. But I always wanted to ask him: What happens when you finally achieve your dream? Is it all worth it, or were you happier with what you already had years before?

The board could forgive Curt for missing 10 percent growth one year, but never two. No, he entered leadership with pageantry but left with a whisper: three lines in a press release, one for every decade of service. I'd like to believe Curt departed on his own terms, not as the stunned victim of a corporate shanking. Maybe he decided it was his time to step away. Maybe he realized how precious his remaining time was and wanted to fill it with golf, grandchildren, and travel. Who knows, he could still launch a company, consult, or teach. Perhaps the corporate staff would throw a big send off, filled with toasts and reminisces of names and stories long forgotten.

But we know there are few gold watches anymore. More likely, Curt's days will grow quiet and still. Like everyone else, he'll discover former associates won't return his calls quickly (if at all). There will be no tugs of war between here and there, no schedules, meetings, speeches, or calls from New York Times business reporters, either. Eventually, everyone is used up, left behind, irrelevant. Like his predecessors, he'll fade away, as though he never really existed. In the end, we're all disposable, ultimately reduced to a footnote in another's story.

Curt had taken us as far as he could. Now the decision-makers have passed the torch to another waiting in the wings. To our cynics, Curt's story serves a cautionary tale of how the corporation will cast us aside once we've outlived our usefulness. To the rest, he is a reminder of the natural order. While we were maturing—blissfully unaware of the demands ahead of us—Curt was developing the networks and reputation we take for granted. Now, it's our turn to build on the legacy he so carefully fashioned. So we honor him with the examples we set and the groundwork we lay for the next generation. In doing so, we face those same doubts and fears that Curt once bore.

In those times, we hear a familiar voice counseling us to slow down and stay calm and optimistic, to persevere and stand by our convictions. It's that reassurance in our darkest hours that remains Curt's lasting gift to us.

Author's Note: This article is based on real events I've observed in my profession. Some of the details have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

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