In the Firing Line

Fired, let go, made redundant, kicked out or whatever euphemism you choose, lucky is the person who has not experienced the process or lived without the worry that it could happen at any time.  Given that it is so long since the last recession (not the start of the current one in 2008) this is a dilemma that many will be facing for the first time. So, what’s to do if you’re worried about the potential threat or, more urgently, if you have been recently let go?

 Before anyone questions my credentials I should explain that, having been fired 5 times in my career, I have both form and opinions and, in the current vernacular, I do have the tee shirt.  A brief summary of the sordid details

My first firing took place with me flat on my back in a hospital bed early in the recovery phase of a life threatening illness that was to take half a year before I was back to full health.  Getting my P45 in such circumstances was only slightly softened by the personal, bedside delivery from my boss.  Given the then indeterminate length of my stay at the pleasure of the NHS, I have to say that the actual firing was somewhat underwhelming in comparison to other considerations. My fault in the firing process?  Falling ill.

It was more than a few years before the P45 experience came knocking at my door once more; in fact it is more accurate to say that it was prefaced by a loud thumping on my office wall.  As this was the usual form of summons from my boss, the CEO, I legged it into his adjacent office assuming only that more of his workload was going to fall into my in-tray. “Boy, you’ve got a problem with the main board” was his greeting as he waved an envelope at me, “You’re fired”. The main board being 100% comprised of Japanese nationals was safely ensconced in Tokyo.  It would be fair to stay that, given that the contents of the envelope included a cheque of calming proportions, and the fact that my boss was extremely cordial about the whole thing “Nothing personal as far as I’m concerned”, the disbelief and rage took a few days to set in. My role in this affair was somewhat less benign.  I still believe that the decision was wrong but I had been guilty of arrogance and an inability to either adapt to changing circumstances or to learn how to play politics.

More years passed and this time found me bitterly unhappy, working in a European country famous for its gnomes and financial probity, doing a job I hated and, which I have to admit I was singularly unsuited for (politics really is not my bag) against a background of the business having just changed hands.  I had worked with the new owners for the previous six months whilst the due diligence process ground on and had come to hate them with an intensity rare even for me.  So when the Swiss equivalent of the P45 was thrust into my hand 10 days after the deal completed, a wave of sheer relief swept over me.  Apart from any role that my continued lack of political skills played I was genuinely in the wrong place when a new owner decided he really didn’t require a European headquarters.

The fourth occasion of an involuntary cessation of my duties came after two years of sheer slog, pulling a large subsidiary of a small Plc back from losses of millions to a break-even situation. Rage attacked me all the more acutely when I dwelt on how long they had allowed the previous, disastrous management to build up the losses in the first place.  So, my reward was another P45 episode.  What really had the rage in full flood this time was that they wanted me to work out my notice to save the cash impact of paying me off on the spot.  My pugnacious side was given full vent.  Aided by a decent lawyer and several bloody battles later I emerged into the sunlight clutching an acceptable cheque.  I think I had done everything I could to improve the business, my mistake being to have joined such a fragile Plc (it subsequently faded out of existence in the next few years). Finally sick of being at the whim of others, this was the episode that turned me away from employment and into a new career of consultancy, entrepreneurialism and VC backed buy-ins.

 An intense period of two years saw me buying 3 separate businesses with the aid of venture capital.  As experience has shown, the classic management buy-in, pursued with (reckless?) abandon through the 90’s, is an incredibly risky process (you simply don’t know where the skeletons are buried).  Robbed blind by the vendor on my first deal, matters were made worse by an incompetent business partner and a duplicitous supplier. I did everything possible to turn an impossible situation around but finally, when no other options existed, petitioned for an administrator to be appointed.  As I discovered within 24 hours, owning a business doesn’t mean that you are free from the risks of an ordinary employee and, yes, a brand new P45 was waiting for me. There is a long story concerning this business that I have touched upon in an earlier post but suffice to say I should have trusted my judgement and walked away from the deal in the first place.

A footnote to this last episode was finding that the Big 4 accountancy firm I had appointed as administrators, robbed the insolvent business blind, stringing the administration process out for 10 years whilst they took whatever cash they could get their hands on as management fees.  The creditors got not one penny and I lost a lot of money but I did learn that certain forms of robbery are entirely legal.

 Once I had overcome my early rage at being fired I found these experiences to be extremely liberating and (although you may not believe this) some of the happiest times of my career.  Was I stark staring mad?  Had the whole process unhinged me?  I don’t think so but what I do know was that when the pre event stress stopped, the calm was wonderful and the prospect of a new step in my career very exciting.  It provided time and space to be genuinely reflective and to be completely focused on the single new goal I had.

 So, what advice have I got?  If you are faced with the risk or reality of being let go, what should you do?  Part 2 (posting soon) will take a look at some advice I have acquired as a result of these experiences.

Image courtesy of planetill.com

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5 responses to “In the Firing Line

  1. I’m looking forward to reading what insights you have gained from these experiences! Please post soon.

  2. Reading this post again, there are several things I would like to discuss here. First of all, in your first firing, it was due to a serious health problem. I think one major advantage Britons have is of the National Health Service. Being American, I can tell you that many Americans are uninsured, the majority of those uninsured being unable to afford private health insurance. Many Americans are only one illness or accident away from total bankruptcy. Unemployment insurance (for anyone who has it, not everyone does) only lasts a short time. The number one reason why people have lost their houses and ended up homeless on the street is due to unforeseen medical expenses (and in some cases, those people were insured to a certain degree, but not sufficiently for what happened to them).

    Secondly, I do have a few British friends, and several of them tell me that business and entrepreneurship, unlike in America, is frowned upon in Britain. Many people assume that entrepreneurs are low-class or dishonest, or are “not the kind of people you’d want to know.” Where does this idea come from? It really makes me upset (even though I am not British!). Have you ever encountered this sort of prejudice being an entrepreneur or business owner? If so, how do you deal with it?

    Best regards,
    Lynne Diligent

  3. Hi Lynne – thank you for your searching questions and comments, which I look forward to.
    With regards to the NHS I must be eternally grateful for this service as it has quite literally saved my life on two occasions. The first time I would certainly have died without NHS care as my parents could never have afforded private medical care and neither could I. On the second occasion (four years ago), I did have private healthcare but I didn’t use it as I can’t imagine the care could have been better.
    The original intention behind the NHS (based on the Beveridge Report) was to provide a safety net for healthcare and unemployment (the latter merely as a bridge to fresh training and the next position). As I expect you are aware it has become to be viewed as a ‘right’ and a lifestyle choice not to work. We have some households where no-one has worked for 3 generations and the NHS paying for cosmetic treatments.
    Our attitude to entrepreneurs is changing now as a result of the likes of Richard Branson of Virgin and the information generation. The view that you describe relates back to the class structure of previous centuries where wealth was viewed as worthy if inherited and the worse thing was to have obtained ones money through ‘trade’.
    These are worthy subjects best explored at length with a bottle between the participants 🙂
    Best regards
    Tony

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