The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs

In The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs: How to be Insanely Great in Front of Any Audience, communications coach and BusinessWeek.com columnist Carmine Gallo reveals the techniques that have turned the Apple CEO into one of the world’s most extraordinary corporate storytellers. For more than three decades, Jobs has transformed product launches into an art form. Whether you’re a CEO, manager, entrepreneur, small business owner, or sales or marketing professional, Steve Jobs has something to teach you. Above all, a Steve Jobs presentation is intended to do three things: inform, educate and entertain. Here are ten steps to accomplishing them.

1.Plan in Analog

Steve Jobs made his mark in the digital world of bits and bytes, but he plans presentations in the old world of pen and paper. A Steve Jobs presentation has all the elements of a great movie—heroes and villains, stunning visuals and a supporting cast. And, like a movie director, Steve Jobs “storyboards” the plot. Before you go digital and open PowerPoint, spend time brainstorming, sketching or whiteboarding in the early stages. Remember, you’re delivering a story, the narrative. Slides complement the story. Neuroscientists have found the brain gets bored easily. Steve Jobs doesn’t give his audience time to get distracted. His presentations include demonstrations, video clips, and other speakers. All of the elements are planned and collected well before the slides are created.

2. Create a Twitter-Friendly Description

Steve Jobs creates a single sentence description for every product. These headlines help the audience categorize the new product and are always concise enough to fi t in a 140-character Twitter post. For example, when Jobs introduced the MacBook Air in January, 2008, he said that is it simply, “The world’s thinnest notebook.” That one sentence speaks volumes. Jobs will fill in the details during his presentation and on the Apple Web site, but he finds one sentence to position every product. Your listeners need to see the big picture before the details. If you can’t describe your product or ideas in 140 characters or less, go back to the drawing board

3. Introduce the Antagonist

In every classic story, the hero fi ghts the villain. The same holds true for a Steve Jobs presentation. In 1984, the villain was IBM, known as “Big Blue” at the time. Before Jobs introduced the famous 1984 television ad to a group of Apple salespeople, he created a dramatic story around it. “IBM wants it all,” he said. Apple would be the only company to stand in its way. It was very dramatic and the crowd went crazy. Branding expert Martin Lindstrom says that great brands and religions have something in common: the idea of vanquishing a shared enemy. Create a villain that allows the audience to rally around the hero—you and your product. A “villain” doesn’t necessarily have to be a direct competitor. It can be a problem in need of a solution. When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone in January, 2007, his presentation at Macworld focused on the problems mobile phone users were experiencing with the current technology.

4. Focus on Benefits

Your listeners are asking themselves one question: Why should I care? Steve Jobs sells the benefi t behind every new product or feature—and he’s very clear about it. Why buy an iPhone 3G? Because “it’s twice as fast at half the price.” What’s so great about Time Capsule? “All your irreplaceable photos, videos and documents are automatically protected and easy to retrieve if they’re ever lost.” Even the Apple Web site focuses on benefi ts with top ten lists like, “10 Reasons Why You’ll Love a Mac.” Nobody cares about your product. They only care about how your product or service will improve their lives. Make the connection for your customers. Don’t leave them guessing.

5. Stick to the Rule of Three

Nearly every Steve Jobs presentation is divided into three parts. When Jobs returned from a health-related absence on September 9, 2009, he told the audience he would be talking about three products: iPhones, iTunes and iPods. Along the way he provides verbal guideposts such as “iPhones. The fi rst thing I wanted to talk about today. Now, let’s move on to the second, iTunes.” The number “three” is a powerful concept in writing. Playwrights know that three is more dramatic than two; comedians know that three is funnier than four, and Steve Jobs knows that three is more memorable than six or eight. You might have twenty points to make about your product, but your audience is only capable of holding three or four points in short term memory. Give them too many points and they’ll forget everything. If three is such an important number, why does this e-book have ten points? Because it’s a written reference tool that is not intended to be delivered verbally. If this information were delivered verbally, we would only stick to three key takeaways. Remember, Steve Jobs will send his audience to the Apple Web site for more information, but he only delivers three points in a conversation.

6. Sell Dreams, Not Products

Charismatic speakers like Steve Jobs are driven by a nearly messianic zeal to create new experiences. Steve Jobs doesn’t sell computers. He sells the promise of a better world. When Jobs introduced the iPod in 2001, he said, “In our own small way we’re going to make the world a better place.” Where most people see the iPod as a music player, Jobs sees it as tool to enrich people’s lives. Of course, it’s important to have great products. But passion, enthusiasm and a sense of purpose beyond the actual product will set you and your company apart. Jobs is also passionate about his customers and he’s not afraid to wear that passion on his sleeve. During a presentation in 1997 he concluded by saying, “Some people say you have to be a little crazy to buy a Mac. Well, in that craziness we see genius and that’s who we make tools for.” Cultivate a sense of mission. Passion, emotion and enthusiasm are grossly underestimated ingredients in professional business communications and yet they are powerful ways to motivate others. Steve Jobs once said that his goal was not to die the richest man in the cemetery. It was to go to bed at night thinking that he and his team had done something wonderful. Do something wonderful. Make your brand stand for something meaningful.

7. Create Visual Slides

Apple products are easy to use because they eliminate “clutter.” This design philosophy applies to every Steve Jobs presentation. There are no bullet points in his presentations. Instead Jobs relies on photographs and images. Where the average PowerPoint slide has forty words, it’s diffi cult to fi nd seven words on ten of Jobs’s slides. The technique is called “Picture Superiority:” information is more effectively recalled when text and images are combined. For example, when Steve Jobs unveiled the Macbook Air, Apple’s ultra-thin notebook computer, he showed a slide of the computer fi tting inside a manila inter-offi ce envelope. That image was worth a thousand words. “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,” Jobs once said. Be sophisticated. Keep it simple.

8. Make Numbers Meaninful

In every Apple presentation, big numbers are put into context. On September 9, 2009, Apple VP Phil Schiller said that 220 million iPods had been sold to date. He placed that number into context by saying it represented 73% of the market. He broke it down even further—and took a jab at the competition—by saying Microsoft was “pulling up the rear” with its 1% market share. Schiller learned his technique from Jobs who always puts large numbers into a context that’s relevant to his audience. The bigger the number, the more important it is to find analogies or comparisons that make the data relevant to your audience. For example, when the United States government bailed out the U.S. economy to the tune of $700 billion, it was too huge a number for most people to comprehend. Journalists tried to put it into context. The one example that seemed to capture the attention of the press—$700 billion is like spending one million dollars a day since the day Christ was born. Now that’s a big number!

9. Use Zippy Words

Steve Jobs speaks in plain English. In fact, he has fun with words. He described the speed of the new iPhone 3G as “amazingly zippy.” Where most business presenters use words that are obtuse, vague or confusing, Jobs’s language is remarkably simple. He rarely, if ever, will use the jargon that clouds most presentations—terms like “best of breed” or “synergy.” His language is simple, clear and direct. Legendary GE CEO Jack Welch once said, “Insecure managers create complexity.” Exude confi dence and security; speak simply

10. Reveal “Holy Smokes” Moment

Every Steve Jobs presentation has one moment that neuroscientists call an “Emotionally Charged Event.” The emotionally charged event is the equivalent of a mental sticky note that tells the brain, “Remember this!” For example, at Macworld 2007, Jobs could have opened the presentation by telling the audience that Apple was unveiling a new mobile phone that also played music, games, and video. Instead, he built up the drama. “Today, we are introducing three revolutionary products. The first one is a widescreen iPod with touch controls. The second is a revolutionary mobile phone. And the third is a breakthrough Internet communications device…an iPod, a phone, an Internet communicator… an iPod, a phone, are you getting it? These are not three devices. This is one device!” The audience erupted in cheers because it was so unexpected and very entertaining.

One More Thing: Practice, a Lot

Steve Jobs spends hours rehearsing every facet of his presentation. Every slide is written like a piece of poetry, every presentation staged like a theatrical experience. Yes, Steve Jobs makes a presentation look effortless but that polish comes after hours and hours of grueling practice. Steve Jobs has improved his style over time. If you watch video clips of Steve Jobs’s presentations going back twenty years (available on YouTube) you will see that he improves signifi cantly with every decade. The Steve Jobs of 1984 had a lot of charisma but the Steve Jobs of 1997 was a far more polished speaker. The Steve Jobs who introduced the iPhone in 2007 was even better. Nobody is born knowing how to deliver a great PowerPoint presentation. Expert speakers hone that skill with practice.

Budget and Budgeting?

If you dread “budget season,” you’re not alone. Learn how budgeting works and why it matters, so you can build effective budgets—and overcome that dread for good.

A definition

budget is a document that translates a group’s or organization’s strategic and operational plans into the expected resources required and returns anticipated over a certain period. *

There are many types of budgets. For example:

  • Operating budgets reflect a group’s or organization’s day-to-day revenues and expenses. They typically cover a one—year period.
  • Capital budgets show planned outlays for investments in plants, equipment, and product development. Capital budgets may cover periods of three to 10 years.
  • Cash budgets plot the expected cash balances an organization will have during the given period, based on information provided in the operating and capital budgets.

Your role

As a manager, you may need to prepare operating budgets for your group every year. Your organization’s finance department “rolls up” your operating budget and those created by your peers into a master budget for the entire organization.

You may also create capital budgets for investments you’re considering making for your group. As with your operating budgets, the finance department combines your capital budgets with other managers’ capital budgets to further build the master budget. The operating and capital budget information goes into the balance sheet and the company’s cash flow statement.

You probably won’t be preparing cash budgets unless you work in your organization’s finance department. That’s because this kind of budget is typically created by finance professionals. For that reason, this topic focuses on operating and capital budgets.

Here’s a diagram showing the information sources for various organizational budgets—and how the different budgets are connected. In a typical manufacturing company, for instance, the VPs of sales, procurement, and manufacturing, along with CFOs, country unit heads, and sales and marketing heads, contribute estimates for the operating budget. The CEO, CFO, division and business—unit heads, and plant managers and product managers provide estimates of planned capital investments for the capital budget.

How Departmental Budgets Coordinate with the Master Budget
The information sources for various organizational budgets.

Preparing a Budget. Pocket Mentor. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2009.

How Departmental Budgets Coordinate with the Master Budget

Why budgets matter

A budget functions as financial blueprint or action plan that a group or organization creates to ensure it has enough resources to achieve its goals. The budget also helps ensure that achieving those goals generates the desired benefits.

So a group or organization uses a budget to:

  • Put all of its financial components into one coherent picture that shows its strategic and operational goals along with its financial health
  • Align individual teams, departments, and business units behind the organization’s goals (for example, a company would budget more for sales and marketing teams charged with expanding the customer base in their region)
  • Allocate resources wisely
  • Communicate financial expectations
  • Evaluate and motivate managers’ and employees’ performance (for example, managers and employees receive a bonus when their group meets the goals laid out in its budget)
  • Communicate goals to external stakeholders. Many companies declare their strategic and operational goals publicly to capital markets and then put those goals in their budgets

EXAMPLE

Karl’s company’s investor relations team might tell analysts, “We expect earnings per share of $1.30 to $1.35”; “Our capital expenditures won’t exceed 10% of our revenues”; or “We plan to invest 5% more in R&D over the next three years.”

  • Take corrective action when actual business results don’t match the budgeted target results; this might mean allocating more money to boost an effort or cutting funds if an activity or initiative is no longer worth pursuing.

Overview of the budgeting process 

Typically, formulating a budget is an iterative process: Different groups prepare preliminary budgets. They then come together to identify and resolve differences. Coordination and communication between people at different levels of the organization and across functions are critical for arriving at useful budgets.

In an organization in which upper management defines strategic and operational goals, senior managers must communicate those goals to managers at all levels. Functional-area managers, business unit heads, and team leaders need to communicate their particular needs, assumptions, expectations, and goals to those who evaluate the departmental and functional budgets.

In addition, the different groups within the organization must listen to one another. For instance, if one division wants to achieve certain sales goals, then the production department needs to know that, so it can prepare to increase production capacity. If the company wants to introduce a new service, then the marketing department has to know about this early in its planning process. That way, marketing can include funds in its budget for developing effective advertising campaigns for the new offering.

Traditional and alternative approaches

There are many different approaches to the budgeting process. Some of them are traditional; others are designed for changing business needs (e.g., the need for real-time information or greater flexibility) and newer ways of working (more agile, less hierarchical):


Traditional budgets are generally easier to build, and they simplify the coordination of assumptions across departments. On the downside, their timing is frequently off: The periods they cover are either too long or too short to reflect real conditions. Moreover, traditional budgets can be simplistic or overly complicated, or inflexible or political.

Alternative budgets, such as zero-based budgets, try to deliver greater accuracy and functionality. But creating them and embedding them into company practice is a major undertaking. It can distract managers’ attention from their critical activities.

Types of costs

Whether your organization takes a traditional or alternative approach to budgeting, you need to distinguish between several types of costs when you build your budget: fixed, variable, and corporate overhead.

Fixed costs

Fixed costs remain fairly constant, regardless of production or sales volumes during the budget period. Examples include:

  • Rent
  • Basic utilities, including electric and telephone service
  • Equipment leases
  • Depreciation
  • Interest payments
  • Administrative costs
  • Marketing and advertising
  • Indirect labor, such as salaried supervisory employees

Variable costs

Variable costs change in direct proportion to shifts in production or sales volumes during the budget period. Examples include:

  • Raw materials
  • Direct labor
  • Packaging
  • Energy (electricity, gas) used in manufacturing or production
  • Shipping
  • Sales commissions
  • Income taxes

Your estimates of the variable costs that will be incurred during the budget period depend on your group’s or organization’s plans. By understanding those plans, you can anticipate the need for resources (such as expanded capacity) and include them in your budget requests.

EXAMPLE

Anna is the head of production for a book publisher. Her organization wants to increase sales volumes significantly. Anna includes in her budgets the expected costs for leasing additional computer equipment, renting more warehouse space, hiring extra administrative help in her group, and purchasing extra paper.

Corporate overhead costs

Operating budgets may include corporate overhead costs—costs associated with operating the organization that aren’t tied to individual products or departments. This figure typically includes the rent for the offices occupied by corporate headquarters, and salaries and expenses associated with corporate management.

How these costs are attributed to individual departments varies from one company to another. Some organizations may allocate overhead only to certain departmental budgets—such as those that generate revenue.

Fixed vs. flexible budgets

There are two basic kinds of operating budgets: fixed and flexible. A fixed budget is used where there are few or no variable expense elements. The manager must stick to the original amount budgeted for the particular budget period (barring a major unforeseen event, like a labor strike or a weather catastrophe).

flexible budget allows the organization to adjust budgeted revenues and costs based on actual levels of activity, which can vary—sometimes greatly. For example, a manager with a flexible budget would be authorized to incur additional production costs to meet unanticipated demand. Flexible budgets are useful where managers have no control over the volume of output; they can spend what they need to meet customers’ needs without being penalized for the higher costs.FROM

How to Build a Flexible Budget

To build a flexible budget you must determine your relevant range, analyze fixed and variable costs, separate cost by type of activity, and prepare a budget.

To build a flexible budget:

  1. Determine the relevant range of the activity that is expected to fluctuate during the coming period: the number of widgets manufactured, deliveries run, hours of contractor labor needed, and so forth.
  2. Analyze the fixed and variable costs that will be incurred over that range.
  3. Separate costs by type of activity, such as market research (for expanding to a new market) or distribution.
  4. Prepare a budget showing what costs would be incurred at various points throughout the range.

EXAMPLE

Demi, a marketing manager for a furniture retailer, is planning a marketing campaign for the next year’s new fall line. She’ll include in her budget the cost of an advertising agency’s services, the fees for freelance writers, and the labor costs for additional call center representatives to handle expected increases in call volume.

Flexible budgets are especially valuable for organizations operating in volatile business environments.

EXAMPLE

Tom is a supply chain manager for a steel manufacturer. Among other things, he is responsible for maintaining inventory at levels that support the sales plan. His company faces numerous uncertainties that could cause actual revenues and costs to differ markedly from those originally budgeted, including:

  • Fluctuations in the supply and cost of raw materials, electricity, and natural gas
  • Sudden changes in market demand for steel products, owing to a volatile global economy
  • Intensifying competitive pressures from imports
  • Changes in foreign trade policy affecting imports and exports
  • New government regulations increasing environmental compliance costs

For this reason, when preparing his annual budget, he includes ranges for the quantity of raw materials needed for production, as well as for shipping and logistics costs for inbound materials and customer orders.

Limitations of budgets

Like any other management tool, budgets have limitations. For instance:

  • They can be rigid. Startups as well as companies in fast-changing industries find budgets somewhat limiting. That’s because such enterprises can’t readily adapt their budgets to changes in their internal and external business environment.
  • They’re time- and labor-intensive. The budgeting process takes considerable time and effort. One survey showed that budgeting takes up 20%-30% of senior executives’ time. * Because budgeting is so time-consuming, managers often must start developing new budgets before they’ve seen the impact of budgetary changes on the last period’s results.
  • They can have unintended consequences. For example, when managers’ compensation is tied to their performance against budgets, the practice might trigger the wrong behaviors, such as budget padding (deliberately underestimating revenue or overestimating costs) or channel stuffing (shipping unfinished products to distributors to record more sales).

EXAMPLE

Caren, a marketing manager for a toy manufacturer, intentionally understates demand for the company’s products for an upcoming major holiday. That way, the revenues targeted in the budget will be low and easy to beat—and she can get a bonus. The company ties its production to this biased forecast and runs out of products to sell during the height of the holiday season. *

  • They can foster counterproductive decisions. If budgets aren’t linked to an organization’s strategy-related spending, they can end up encouraging actions that undermine goals.

A cost-reduction mandate that results in across-the-board cuts can hurt important strategic initiatives or operations that contribute disproportionately to the company’s profits. As a result, high-performing units are penalized and underperforming ones are propped up. *

  • They can encourage a use-it-or-lose-it mindset. Managers fear that if they don’t spend what’s left over in their budgets at the end of the year, their funding for next year will be reduced. * So they find something to spend the surplus on, instead of channeling those funds to resource-starved operations or projects elsewhere in the organization.

Once you understand the limitations, you can adjust your budgeting practices and expectations accordingly and derive more value from the budgets you create.


Help Others Manage Their Careers

When you help your direct reports clarify their professional goals and identify growth opportunities, you also advance your own career.

How developing others benefits you

As a manager, your own career isn’t your only focus. You also need to consider the career paths of your team members. For your organization to thrive and your own career to grow, it’s important to help others improve and advance.

If you challenge team members appropriately and delegate effectively, they will produce results that benefit everyone. Likewise, when you focus on your employees’ goals, interests, and values, you build trust and engagement—increasing the odds that good employees will stay with your organization.

When you retain talent, you:

  • Keep intellectual capital. Good employees have a wealth of skill, experience, and ideas that can be difficult to replace.
  • Attract other good people. There’s an expression that “like attracts like.” Smart, committed employees are likely to help recruit additional talent.
  • Control costs. It’s expensive to recruit, hire, and train replacements when talented employees leave.

Ultimately, employees you’ve developed may need to move elsewhere in your organization to keep growing. While that’s an immediate loss to your team, it’s a win for the organization.

And as you help your employees grow their capabilities, you’re also deepening your own leadership skills. This will make you a better mentor for others in your network and help you advance your career.

Help employees clarify goals

Too often, managers assume they have a solid understanding of their employees’ goals. But people’s needs and desires evolve as they become experienced in a position, or their values may shift because of changing priorities in their personal lives.

To effectively guide people’s careers, you need to have regular, candid conversations with them, preferably several times a year. Make sure to cover:

When having a career conversation with your employees, make sure to cover their current interests, the skills they need to develop, their values, and the level of support they need.
  • Their current interests. Has a recent project given them new insight about something they enjoy and want to pursue more deeply? Or has a task become routine and hence no longer stimulating? What have they loved doing recently? What frustrated them—and why?
  • Their skills. Review any new learning, training, or certifications they have completed since your last meeting. Staying apprised of your employees’ capabilities helps you better craft stretch assignments.
  • Their values. What rewards are most meaningful to them right now? An employee who is eager for promotion may want a prestigious assignment that will get them noticed by upper management. A team member who recently started a family may yearn for a flexible schedule that allows for better work/life balance. Or an employee may want to reduce work hours in order to go back to school.
  • The level of support they can expect from you. Do they need any additional resources or guidance? In contrast, is there anything they’d like to be able to do with greater autonomy? Assure employees that you will regularly scan for opportunities for them.

Create developmental opportunities

Once you’ve discussed your employee’s interests, values, and skills, help them develop further:

To develop an employee you can “sculpt” the job, make introductions, and evaluate career options together.
  • Use new insights to reshape their jobs. Consider redefining the person’s current role so that it better matches their interests, values, and skills. Ask yourself, “How can I add more of what this person enjoys to the role? Is there anything that doesn’t align with their interests that I could take away? How can I create rewards that are most motivating to my employee?”
  • Evaluate career options together. Identify a next career step or possible path within your organization. Together, discuss whether that role would give your employee enough challenges and opportunities to learn. Does it satisfy their current core interests? If the answer is yes, work with the employee to develop a plan that prepares them for the role.
  • Make introductions. Identify people in the company who you think could provide growth opportunities and guidance for your employee. Whenever possible, help to arrange meetings.

Take it to the team level 

Consider empowering your team to do collaborative job crafting—that is, by involving them in reconsidering how tasks are carried out and distributed within the team. Research has shown that when team members thoughtfully redistribute tasks among themselves, engagement and performance go up.

The motives of the participants in collaborative job crafting may vary. Some team members may want to swap tasks to better tap their own skills. Others may want to take on tasks that will help them hone new skills. Still others may just be bored with doing the same old tasks and are looking for more variety.

Regardless of the motivation, when engagement and performance increase, so do career prospects.

EXAMPLE

John, a program director at a housing services company, leads a team charged with implementing a rental subsidy program. He decides to meet with each of his team members to discuss their job satisfaction and career aspirations. He learns that a housing inspector would like a larger role in policy development; that the program administrator would like to spend more time learning new IT applications; and that the hotline operator is feeling burned out and would like more assistance from team members.

John realizes that making these adjustments would affect others on his team, so he decides to involve everyone in rethinking task allocation. He proposes a five-step process:

Step 1: Current task assessment. Members individually identify tasks they would like to spend more or less time on.

Step 2: Skills development wish list. Members individually identify skills they would like to improve over the next year.

Step 3: Information exchange meeting. Members present their task assessment analysis and their skills development lists to the group.

Step 4: Offline discussion. Members take a week to informally discuss possible ways to tailor responsibilities, swap tasks, or collaborate to improve job satisfaction, skill building, or career opportunities.

Step 5: New task agreement meeting. Members meet to draw up a new division of tasks within the team.

There is some initial resistance to John’s collective job crafting plan. As it unfolds, however, team members become quite enthusiastic as they develop solutions meet most of each other’s objectives. And John’s confidence that his experiment with job crafting is a success grows as team members report higher job satisfaction and as senior management recognizes his team for improved performance.

Overcome Career Setbacks

Most of us experience career roadblocks, but if you handle tough times with a positive mindset, you can make big gains.

Cultivate career resilience 

No one’s career path is perfectly smooth. There will always be bumps in the road. You may be laid off, fired, or passed over for promotion. Or you may just come to a point where you feel stuck.

How can you face these struggles with grace and resilience? Cultivate an “assignment mentality” toward work. Remind yourself that your current job is not a permanent state, but a step along a journey. Contribute your best effort and focus on what you can gain from the experience to take the next step in your career.

When you think of your job as temporary rather than permanent, you are more likely to:

  • Invest in your networks and your skills. You know that you’ll use them to make your next move. These actions will also make you better at your current job.
  • Avoid emotional pitfalls. Nothing in life is permanent, yet because you see your colleagues on a daily basis, it can be easy to think of them as a second family. However, work relationships should be only one of many sources of companionship.
  • Keep perspective. Your job is not the whole of who you are, nor does it determine whether you are successful in life. The happiest, most productive employees don’t rely exclusively on their jobs to give them purpose. They lead fulfilling lives outside work, too.

Recover from a career setback

Get back on track after a setback in your career using a three-phase process: begin your recovery, reframe your setback, and rebound from your setback.

Begin your recovery 

If you’ve been fired, demoted, or passed over for a job you wanted, to begin your recovery:

  • Gather yourself emotionally. When you receive difficult news, your body automatically goes into “fight or flight” mode. Adrenaline courses through your body, which makes it hard to think rationally. In this moment, say as little as possible. The first thing out of your mouth is not likely to be useful for your reputation or future career.
  • Take a hiatus. After you’ve had some time to cool down—whether it’s 24 hours or several weeks—you can begin the process of reevaluating your career.

Reframe a career setback

You may be tempted to dwell on a career setback after it happens, but that’s ultimately a destructive course. Reframe the setback instead:

  • Switch the questions. Swap “Why me?” and other questions that provoke self-pity for action-oriented inquiry, such as, “What can I do to move forward?” or “What positives can I gain from this situation?”
  • Set “negativity appointments.” Rather than let negative thoughts consume you, schedule three 3-minute appointments each day where you allow yourself to think about the setback. During the rest of the day, if negative thoughts occur, mentally set them aside until your “appointment.”
  • Try to see the event or decision from the company’s point of view. This helps you forgive where necessary and gain insight that may help you avoid repeating mistakes.
  • View failure as a beginning, not an end. Profound reinvention and great success often spring from a setback.

Rebound from a career setback

Rebounding from a career setback takes time and determination. Here are four steps to guide your path back to career success:

Steps for Recovering from Setbacks
Steps for Recovering from Setbacks

1. Face reality

  • Do a financial assessment. To lower your stress, figure out how long you can take to look for a job and whether you can reduce your expenses in the meantime.
  • Decide which battles need to be fought. Choose efforts that restore your reputation rather than those that only drain your energy.
  • Talk it out. Share your story with trusted friends or family to manage negative emotions you may have from the setback before jumping into a new job search.

2. Recruit others

  • Reach out. Use your network for informational interviews, insight on job opportunities, and connections.
  • Enlist your network to tap members of their networks. A Stanford University study found that nearly 30% of job seekers found jobs through distant acquaintances. *

3. Rediscover your mission

  • Look to the future. When something ends, it’s a chance to start anew. What do you want to do? Where can you contribute most?
  • Stay engaged. Volunteer, take on a temporary project, or sign up for a course to learn something new. In addition to keeping you from dwelling on the setback, these activities can expand your capabilities and network.

4. Rebuild your reputation

  • Develop a simple narrative. Be consistent in your account of the events that led up to your setback and what you learned. Don’t disparage your former employer or colleagues—it makes you seem unprofessional.
  • Focus on your strengths. The quicker you start using your talents again in a positive, visible way, the quicker your reputation will rebound.
  • Brush up your elevator pitch. Be ready with a pithy explanation of what makes you stand out.
  • Tend to your online presence. Make sure your social media profiles are up-to-date and positive.
  • Get allies to help rebuild your reputation. Tap old colleagues, mentors, and other contacts with credibility to attest to your skills and character.

EXAMPLE

Felix, a software engineer at a health care provider undergoing a merger, is devastated when he is laid off. He cools off for a few days, and then calls Peter, a former colleague, to ask about job leads in the health care industry.

Peter points out that Felix is an outstanding coder, but has been bored at his job for a quite a while. He suggests Felix take some time to figure out if another kind of work might be more engaging.

Felix calculates that he can afford to hold off taking a new position for about six months. He opts to spend half his time seeking career advice and job leads, and the other half enjoying his longtime hobby of making videos.

After much reflection, Felix decides to explore a new career in videography. Through informational interviews, he learns that his high-level coding skills distinguish him from many other aspiring videographers.

Felix creates an online video portfolio showcasing his coding skills in post-production processes. He then rewrites his resume and develops an elevator pitch that highlights his distinctive skill set. He also develops a quick explanation of his layoff, noting it occurred after a merger, and that it gave him a chance to reconsider what kind of work was most meaningful to him.

Felix eventually lands an entry-level position at a small firm that develops videos for international aid agencies. The new job doesn’t pay as much, but it is far more satisfying. He considers being laid off a blessing, opening a path to a more fulfilling career.

Break out of a career rut *

Everyone has a bad day, week, or month at work. But if you’ve felt stuck—not learning, not growing, not engaged—for longer than that, you may be at a career impasse. Such impasses are not unusual. Admitting you’re mired in one is the first step to making a change.

To determine next steps on your career path:

  • Identify five to seven jobs in your company or new career options that excite you. Consider a wide range of options, not limiting yourself to what is practical or seemingly possible.
  • Look at the list to discern underlying themes. Are you searching for new learning opportunities? Are you interested in working on social issues? Do you want to unleash your artistic side? Would you prefer to not supervise others? Use these underlying themes to narrow your list down to two or three possible job options.
  • Collect data on your shorter list of job options. Conduct informational interviews and read up on any new career paths or companies that interest you. Tap your networks to get feedback on the options you’re considering. Surface issues you should think about before making a change.
  • Once you’ve completed your data collection, consider opportunities in your current organization. Can you redesign your job to accommodate your new career interests? Are there other positions in the company that would be a better fit? If so, explore these possibilities with your manager or sponsors.
  • If you can’t find possibilities in your current organization, consider expanding your search to other companies. At the same time, broaden your network to help steer you through the process.

EXAMPLE

Gabriella, a midlevel manager at a cosmetic company’s call center, is in a career rut. Her position offered her predictable hours while her children were young, but she is restless now and wants to find a more challenging position.

She begins by making a list of jobs that, no matter how unrealistic, she finds appealing. The list ranges from being a global tour guide, to teaching English in immigrant communities, to being an astronaut. Two key themes emerge. First, she likes to work directly with people, understanding their problems and helping them. Second, she wants more adventure in her life.

Working with her manager and tapping her network, Gabriella begins a search for a new positon. After a few months, a friend sends her an internal job posting for a customer relationship management specialist, working to develop customer loyalty programs in different countries.

When she interviews for the position, Gabriella points out that though she has minimal marketing training, she has extensive knowledge of the company’s products and customers, and emphasizes her eagerness to travel. These arguments, along with a strong recommendation from her manager, help her land the job. She begins as an individual contributor, but within a year is promoted to team leader, drawing on her managerial experience as well as her growing marketing expertise.

Explore Opportunities for Career Growth

Learn how to find new career opportunities within as well as outside of your organization.

Take a broad view

When considering your next career step, take a broad view. Don’t limit your exploration to upward moves. Lateral or even downward moves may position you better in the long run. They may help you:

  • Deepen your core expertise. For instance, if you are a marketing analyst in a business unit, making a lateral move to the same role in a different unit will deepen your marketing skills and increase your understanding of the company’s business model.
  • Broaden your skill set. For instance, you may be managing a unit that has experienced sustained success, but you could develop new skills by accepting a similar position in a unit in need of a turnaround.
  • Manage work/life balance. For instance, you may want to reduce your level of responsibility so you can deal with an illness in your family or go back to school.

Know what your organization offers

There are several reasons to focus first on career opportunities in your current organization:

  • You’ve invested time and effort building your personal brand at your current employer.
  • You’re familiar with the culture—its strengths and idiosyncrasies—and can work effectively within it.
  • Your have networks of contacts within your organization who can direct you to in-house opportunities.
  • Your organization has a vested interest in keeping you—you have knowledge and experience your employer does not want to lose.

Begin your search

Start your job search by following the formal processes your company has established for employees to pursue new opportunities within the organization. Some organizations suggest that you visit their career management center, check the job bank, and then follow their guidelines. Other companies ask that you begin by talking with your supervisor, who can help you either redefine your current role or identify potential opportunities elsewhere in the organization. Although the resources suggested by your organization are a good place to start, don’t stop there:

  • Take the initiative to deepen your understanding of the business, with the goal of uncovering additional opportunities.
  • Try to imagine your organization as outsiders perceive it. What opportunities and challenges would they see?
  • Gather as much information as you can through colleagues, company meetings, shareholder conference calls, online forums, and external contacts.

Ask yourself:

  • Which departments or business areas have momentum? A department that’s growing rapidly may be eager to add someone who is already familiar with the organization’s mission and culture.
  • What opportunities exist for me in a different market, location, or country?Relatively few people are willing to relocate for their jobs, yet companies are hungry for workers who have experience across multiple markets.
  • What entrenched problems does our organization face? How could you get involved in helping solve them?
  • What opportunities do I see? Are there unaddressed customer needs? Are there areas in which the organization could grow?

Define your next role

As you narrow your focus to a specific position you might want to pursue, consider the following questions:

  • How essential is the position to the organization? Research has shown that jobs that are critical to the organization, and for which you are better qualified than most others, are strong career bets.
  • What are the opportunities for advancement after you’ve been in your new position for a few years? Are the people occupying the next position in your desired career path likely to stay where they are? Does the timing for further advancement look good?
  • Is it time to take on a global assignment? In many companies, gaining international experience is an expectation for career advancement.

After weighing these questions, consider talking to your manager about what you’ve learned about internal opportunities to seek guidance on possible next steps.

If you don’t see an appropriate opportunity in your company’s job openings, don’t give up. Instead, think about proposing the job you want to do, even if it doesn’t currently exist.

Propose your idea

After you’ve identified an idea for your next role, pitch it to the person who has the greatest ability to make it a reality and with whom you have the best relationship. This may be your direct manager, a mentor, or a sponsor.

When you present your idea:

  • Give practical suggestions for implementing it. Offer ideas about who could do your current work if you were to step into a new position.
  • Find out if you would need training. Ask your supervisor if they would feel more comfortable giving you a new assignment if you acquired certain skills. In-house or off-site seminars, apprenticeships, or workshops may be a low-cost way to boost your skills.

Don’t be discouraged if your organization doesn’t immediately agree to a new position for you. This is especially the case if what you have suggested differs significantly from what you do now. Your employer may be more willing to agree to an incremental, temporary, or transitional career move, such as:

  • “Grow in place.” You could negotiate changes to your current role to gradually add desired responsibilities or scope.
  • Membership on a cross-functional team. Can you partner with employees from different departments to bring your idea to fruition? You can gain great experience by working on a cross-functional team. In the process, you can also expand your networks and gain insight on other career paths.
  • Job rotation. Some companies offer special assignment or rotational roles. These can range from one-day to six-month assignments—or longer—depending on the program and opportunity. Such jobs can be an ideal way for you to try out a new role and broaden your qualifications.
  • In-house “internship.” Could you forge an agreement to “intern” under a supervisor to learn a new role?

Look outside your company

Today’s careers are dynamic—over the years, people tend to work for multiple employers and in several different industries. It’s likely that you won’t spend your whole career in one organization.

It may make sense to look for a job outside your organization if:

  • Your core interests don’t match what your employer can offer.
  • Market volatility has made your employment precarious.
  • Your position doesn’t have a viable career path. Some jobs provide few opportunities for growth.
  • You’ve made a change in your personal life that will make continuing with your current employer difficult.

Use your network to research job opportunities, schedule informational interviews, and connect with decision makers. Reach out to mentors who are outside your workplace.

Also consider talking with your manager. Letting them know that you are looking outside your company can be sensitive, but your manager may be willing to help. They may understand that your career prospects are limited at your current company, that your skills are in more demand elsewhere, or that you need an employer who can better accommodate other demands on your time.

EXAMPLE

Catarina, an attorney at a pharmaceutical company, wants to become a general counsel someday. The prospects for that happening in her company are bleak. The current general counsel plans to stay with the company until her retirement—more than two decades away. Catarina will need to move to a different organization to realize her career aspirations.

Catarina, an attorney at a pharmaceutical company, wants to become a general counsel someday. The prospects for that happening in her company are bleak. The current general counsel plans to stay with the company until her retirement—more than two decades away. Catarina will need to move to a different organization to realize her career aspirations.

After discussing her situation with several mentors, Catarina talks with her supervising attorney, Mark, about her career options. Mark would like Catarina to stay, but understands her ambitions. He is aware of several companies planning to replace their general counsels over the next several years, including an agricultural company involved in joint litigation with his department. He talks to the other attorneys on his team, and they agreed to help transition Catarina out of her current obligations so she can work on the litigation with the agricultural company.

After three years, Catarina is hired by the agricultural company and eventually becomes its general counsel.

When you find an opportunity you want to pursue, enlist a supporter to introduce you (via email or a phone call) to the relevant hiring manager or decision maker. A personal introduction and note of recommendation can distinguish you as someone an organization should interview.

If you don’t have a connection, put the request out to your network. See if one of your contacts can make an introduction to someone within the organization you are interested in.