That time I was fired

I love Ben Horowitz‘s book The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers. It’s a quick read, full of memorable business ideas that stick, gleaned from Horowitz’s experience with Loudcloud and other ventures (plus a handful of choice rap lyrics). Horowitz sets the tone right from the start:

imgresEvery time I read a management or a self-help book, I find myself saying, “That’s fine, but that wasn’t really the hard thing about the situation.” The hard thing isn’t setting a big hairy audacious goal. The hard thing is laying people off when you miss the big goal. The hard thing isn’t hiring great people. The hard thing is when those “great people” develop a sense of entitlement and start demanding unreasonable things. The hard thing isn’t setting up an organizational chart. The hard thing is getting people to communicate within the organization that you just designed. 

One of my favorite chapters is “When Smart People Are Bad Employees.” Here’s an excerpt:

Sometimes a really smart employee develops an agenda other than improving the company. Rather than identifying weaknesses so he can fix them, he looks for faults to build his case. Specifically, he builds his case that the company is hopeless and run by a bunch of morons.

In my first ten years of employment, I’d been laid off or outsourced three times. Each time this happened, I was offered a new job or an extended severance package. I was reassured that my work was solid, and that the decision was based on math – nothing else. When I lost my job at the startup, it was something entirely different.

I’d joined the company as Chief Experience Officer, employee number six. We were a small but mighty team in Minneapolis, building something great that didn’t exist in the market. Within three months of our launch, Silicon Valley investors came knocking. They convinced our Founder CEO that they’d crush us if he didn’t take their money, and that their investment, experience, and relationships were exactly what we needed to make the company grow. We took the money.

With the money came a new CEO, based in California, an Entrepreneur In Residence (EIR) with the kind of pedigree investors dream about. Our Founder CEO was demoted to President of his company, and none of us were thrilled. We felt that the new owners were dismissive of our ideas, and that the direction they were taking the company was wrong-headed and stupid. I took it upon myself to stand up for the Minneapolis office.

I let the new CEO know he was wrong, again and again. I questioned most of his decisions, undermined him in company meetings, and made sure my coworkers knew we were headed down the wrong path. When my customer experience research was questioned, I got angry. When my coworkers felt undermined, I challenged the CEO to do better.

When I was fired, ten months after the new CEO started, I was enraged. Didn’t he know I was the one holding this thing together? Didn’t he understand that I was very, very right, and that he was very, very wrong?

If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.
– Maya Angelou

I’ll go to my grave knowing that our CEO was wrong about a lot of things, but he wasn’t wrong to fire me. I’d stopped looking for ways to fix the company, for ways to rally around the new product and leadership. I’d started focusing on making sure everyone knew the company was run by morons. I couldn’t change the things I didn’t like, and I refused to change my attitude. How did I last ten months?

I had to go.

Getting fired – for reasons that were entirely within my control – was terrible. I’ll never forget it, and I don’t recommend it. But the lessons I learned from the experience were valuable. Falling in line isn’t anyone’s favorite thing to do – many of us are paid to think critically, and we want to know that our opinions are heard and valued. But after we’ve said our piece, when the dust has settled and we didn’t get our way, our choices are clear: we can change our attitude, or we can change our scenery.

15 thoughts on “That time I was fired

  1. JerryCrary

    Great post Lee! Everyone at a small, medium or large company should take this to heart because it can be applied everywhere. We all go through ups and downs and this will defiantly lift me up right now when I need it. Thanks!


  2. Kris Maus

    It’s amazing what our own additude can do in getting through career challenges. Not that it is always easy to step back and look at what we should be doing at the time when we are in middle of something that we find personal. Spending energy on diving into the negatives things around your job and company will come back to bite you even if you don’t get fired, keeping that additude going will wear you out and will affect the others around you. Better to spend postive energy on making things better and finding ways to improve what you have. You can always look for another job, but in the meantime don’t sell yourself short, do you best work. That way when you walk away on your own terms you still have something to be proud of. It not easy, but you will learn a lot even though it not going to the best time in your career. (Just a hard lesson learned.)


  3. KurtZimmermann

    Great post, Lee! One thing that helps me keep this in check is remembering that unless I am the employee on the absolute bottom of the org chart, I am probably seen at some point as one of those morons too! I have to stop and ask myself “What can I do to help others understand decisions and changes so we can do our best work going forward?”


    1. Lee Zukor Post author

      Thanks a lot, Kurt, great to hear from you. What a great point you raise about us being the morons, about our need to help bring folks along. IMO, one of the greatest challenges of being a leader is how to do it effectively and authentically.


  4. Sara Remke

    Thank you for your thoughtful post Lee. Good to know you were able to reflect and see your part in the situation. I have had to fire people and it is never easy. From my perspective, employees often have good ideas, but that does not mean that they can be implemented immediately. How an idea is presented is important. Each experience is different. However, criticism with out ideas on how to make something work better are not very helpful. People, read employees, that think you are an idiot and you don’t know how to run your business – when you have 15 or more years experience over them, is tiring. In my experience sharing how decisions get made is really important. My response is often, that is a good idea, why don’t you go start your own business and make it happen.


  5. Pingback: The glue that holds teams together | Lee Zukor

  6. Pingback: How to fire someone badly | Lee Zukor

  7. Pingback: Five rules for letting someone go without being a jerk | Lee Zukor

  8. Pingback: Ed Catmull’s “Creativity Inc.” and one of the best work things I’ve ever done | Lee Zukor

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s