The Last Word - How “The best thing that could ever happen to you” – happened to me

By Sander A. Flaum
Our industry is tiny. As a result, I’ve had a chance to work with some of the best in the business – people responsible for developing life-enhancing and often life-extending drugs. People I’m proud to call friends.

So when a tsunami of corporate acquisitions swept through pharma in the mid-2000s, I felt the effects personally. Wall Street loved pharma’s volatility, but for my friends in manager positions, there was no joy. For the first time in their lives, many were facing unemployment. Don’t get me wrong, they didn’t need sympathy. Unlike many downsized workers, they’d keep their houses. Their kids could go to college. But losing your job hurts. These men and women had been winners all their lives. They never imagined that someday their brains, talents, and hard work might not be enough.

One day I got a call from a CEO. He was surviving a merger, but his team was being downsized. He wanted me to talk to them as a group. He knew I was connected to many – some had been clients, others colleagues, and a few had attended my Leadership Forum at Fordham University Graduate School of Business. I agreed, but did not know quite what to say.

Then I recalled my days at Lederle Laboratories (now Pfizer). I had been assured that I was a lead candidate for General Manager of Marketing and Sales if my team could meet a series of sales goals. We busted hump, working unbelievably hard. And we succeeded! Soon, I was pulled aside for a chat. I was going to be passed over. The big job would go to someone else. Sorry, Sander, just politics.

For weeks, I was consumed by fury. Finally, I realized my anger was dragging me down, and my best recourse was to find another job. And it happened again! The CEO recruiting for a top job at an ad agency me assured me that once we turned the business around, he’d retire and I’d have his job. Guess what? The CEO soon decided that he’d keep working for “a bit longer.”

Now I was prepared. Channeling my previous experience, I reset my goals and began looking again. Third time was the charm. I found my dream job as CEO of the Robert A. Becker advertising agency (now Havas Health) and went on to build it to #2 in the global pharma business.

By sharing these experiences with the downsized group I was going to talk to, I hoped to show the necessity of moving past negative emotions and to demonstrate that career reversals could be an opportunity. Our culture has dozens of clichés for this idea. “When one door closes, another one opens.” “Every cloud has a silver lining.” These sound nice; but what most people need aren’t platitudes, they need a bit of help.

We began with meetings designed to safely vent anger and disappointment. Then I shared practical advice we had gathered from recruiters and headhunters. What success stories had they witnessed? What pitfalls had they seen?

One by one, members began to immerse themselves in résumé overhauls, networking, and interviews. I began hearing what became a familiar refrain, “At first I was terrified, but looking back, I realize it was the best thing that could have happened to me.” I also began to hear, “Sander, you really need to write a book about this.”

Well, that’s what I do. I write about business innovation and leadership. Approaching the subject like a mentor, I help people surmount challenges and seize opportunities. This time, I was writing for professionals who suffer a career reversal and who want to get back on that horse and ride again. I also wrote it for the sad souls who hate their jobs and know there’s something better waiting for them, but who need a kick in the pants to just get up and go.

The book came out in October and is titled “The Best Thing That Could Ever Happen To You…How a Career Reversal Can Reinvigorate Your Life.” No matter what life serves up, remember that you’re still the one in charge and can make the next stage in your life “the best thing that could ever happened to you.”

Sander A. Flaum is principal, Flaum Navigators, and chairman, Fordham Leadership Forum, Fordham University Graduate School of Business Administration.

Posted: December 2013

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