How to Make a Career Comeback
There’s a cautionary tale that’s been passed around the professional world for years – someone quits their job and decides to tell the boss exactly what they think of them. Fast forward a few years and this same person, at a different job, finds out they’re getting a new boss. Yep, you guessed it, the very same person they told off years ago. Urban legend or not, it’s a great lesson to be thoughtful in business affairs and never burn bridges. It’s also a strong reminder that we all make embarrassing mistakes at some point in our career. Common ones include a co-worker overhearing you badmouth them, missing a major deadline, or neglecting a client.
The good news is that, whatever your mistake, it is absolutely possible to make a comeback. (Not guaranteed, but possible.) So if you’re in the middle of a tough time, or want to be prepared just in case, here are a few suggestions for getting back on track and repairing your reputation.
The first step is admitting the mistake, and apologizing sincerely. Just once. This is arguably the most important step in reestablishing your credibility – admitting that you made a poor choice shows maturity and self-awareness. Don’t feel it’s necessary to say “I’m sorry” over and over again. At this point, your leader/teammate/client just wants to know how you’re going to fix it. Keep in mind, in some situations, it may be more appropriate to apologize in private so that you don’t make the situation worse, or embarrass the person you wronged.
Make a plan that suits everyone – it could be professional coaching, offering a discount, or revamping a project strategy. As an example, I knew someone who inadvertently sabotaged a teammate in an effort to show off their leadership skills. It backfired, and they both looked unprepared in front of their boss. To repair the dynamic, the offender scheduled regular check-ins to ensure their teammate felt included in all decisions and had opportunities to contribute to the project. It took time, but the relationship was mended.
For smaller, yet visible errors, it could be something like daily self-reflection or a slight change in your presence. For example, imagine you made an inappropriate joke in front of your boss’ boss. You probably don’t need a thorough strategy, however, you should brainstorm some ideas to correct the impression you made – such as speaking more formally and avoiding even appropriate jokes.
Never make the same mistake twice: leaders understand that mistakes happen, but expect their team to learn and show growth from past mistakes. After the correction plan is implemented, check in with leaders or teammates, whoever the appropriate stakeholder is, and share your progress and what you’ve gained from the plan. If possible, it’s also great to have some metrics or feedback showing that the plan is working.
If the plan only slightly works, or temporarily, try altering your approach. Not every mistake requires a deep plan, simple improvements can also enhance your brand. An example could be getting caught not paying attention in a meeting. Perhaps at first you tried overt professionalism, but you still sensed a change in your reputation. So now, maybe you try dressing better, adding a more serious tone to your voice, asking a smart question in a future meeting, or some other small measure to show that you’re reliable and professional. No matter what you choose, it should always start with delivering quality work.
As you’re working to fix things, be mindful of staying authentic – avoid making phony compliments, bringing in cookies, or overpromising on a project. People are usually pretty aware of insincere efforts and these can actually be more damaging. Know that the other person’s trust won’t be instantly restored, but keep at it. Remember that if you do this well, it will not only help repair your reputation, but may even make your brand stronger than it was before the mistake.
After a lengthier period of time (six months, a year), make sure to ask for feedback. For smaller mistakes, you can ask for general feedback on your overall performance, but for real slip-ups, you may have to get more specific. And consider if you’re making different, but comparable errors. Let’s say you’ve turned in several sloppy presentations to your boss. You’ve fixed that problem, but are your emails also careless?
As a final thought, know that some mistakes aren’t fixable. In some professional cultures, racially insensitive language, physical violence, or large financial errors are grounds for immediate termination or demotion. Walk away with a valuable lesson learned and focus on making a fresh start.
Devon Miller, Talent Branding and Recruitment Marketing at Vanguard, is a writer specializing in branding and marketing topics that create authenticity and engagement via social media channels. Vanguard is one of the world’s largest investment companies, offering a large selection of high-quality low-cost mutual funds, ETFs, advice, and related services.