Want to Get Ahead? Get Back

Sometimes the best way to get ahead is to "boomerang" — to go back to your former company as a new, improved version of your old self. Here's how three people tossed their careers for a loop.

Martin Cox left his job at Lotus Development Corp. in 1994 to chase a dream that he couldn't realize there: to ship a piece of software that had his name on it. After years of working on a tool kit that supported other developers, Cox, now 38, longed to be a developer himself. So he jumped ship and went to Individual Inc., where he helped build First! in Brief, a customized news-delivery program that ran on the Lotus platform.

Fast-forward two years: First! in Brief shipped successfully, and Cox was hungry for new challenges. He had become a topflight software programmer, and now he wanted to deepen his understanding of how companies use software to reach their business goals.

Cox decided that consulting to other companies would give him the knowledge he craved. He believed that his gold-star résumé would make him a shoo-in at companies like Andersen Consulting. But, after a year of soul-searching, he decided to consult for Lotus, the company that he'd left not so long ago. He figured that his work with Lotus software, which he knew cold, would give him an invaluable head start there.

Today Cox is back at Lotus — and he's not the only Lotus vet to reenlist. At companies large and small, people are choosing to return to where they once belonged. Call it boomeranging, the next logical step in the evolution of corporate free agency: People are getting ahead by leaving their companies, acquiring critical experience elsewhere, and returning to their former employers with deeper skills and know-how.

As it turns out, you can go home again. But going back is not risk free. Realizing why you really left your old company takes extreme self-awareness. Convincing your ex-employer to take you back takes considerable negotiating skills. And walking back into your old office and facing down people who may think of you as a deserter takes more than a little courage.

But once you clear those hurdles, you might find that reconnecting with your old company is the best career move you've ever made. What follows is a real-world guide to boomeranging — keyed to the crucial questions you need to ask yourself along the way.

Did you jump, or were you pushed?

Before you try to go back, you need to reckon with why you left in the first place. Were you grabbing an unbeatable opportunity somewhere else, or were you forced out because you were no longer getting promoted? If it's the latter, think twice about returning. It's unlikely that the people who had held you back before will now eagerly push your career forward.

Even if you're sure you'll be welcomed back, take a cold, hard look at what's motivating you. The urge to repatriate might have more to do with your failing to fit in with your new company.

Consider Ivan Wu's experience. After college, Wu, now 28, signed up as an auditor at Coopers & Lybrand. After working in Coopers's Vancouver, British Columbia office for nearly four years, he wanted out. "I thought there was a stigma that came with staying too long at a big accounting firm," he says. "Trying to make partner wasn't seen as the cool thing to do." So, at the urging of a recruiter, Wu left Coopers in 1998 and set out for the world of investment banking.

But from day one, Wu had second thoughts about his new company. Despite his doubts, Wu told himself that he might be succumbing to a case of new-job jitters and that his first instinct shouldn't be to run back to his old company.

By the end of his first week, Wu knew that the headhunter had oversold the position: Wu thought he'd be applying his number-crunching skills to investment banking; instead, his job involved little more than glorified data entry. Wu then began to consider admitting his mistake and returning to Coopers. He steeled himself for a tough sell.

Why should your old company want you back?

Even when you've been an all-star performer, don't believe for a moment that your former company will always have a place for you. You may have parted on good terms, but remember: You dumped them. Why should they believe that, this time, you'll stay? Before you formally approach your old company, get a reality check from a trusted insider.

"Call the person whose opinion you respect — someone who has the best insight into your old company's current climate," advises Barbara Moses, a career consultant in Toronto. "It might be a mentor or someone who worked for you, just as long as you can count on that person to be honest."

Wu chose to call a senior manager at Coopers who had been supportive of Wu during his first stint there. Wu, he said, would not weather this transition successfully unless he could prove that his mistake had forced him to develop unambiguous, long-term career goals. Wu listened, and, anticipating a wary response from his old employer, began fortifying himself to call Coopers's hiring partner.

Are you retreating or advancing?

Wu prepared himself for trial by fire, as anyone attempting to boomerang should. No matter what questions you get asked in the do-or-die interview, assume that underlying all of them are versions of "Why are you leaving your new job?" "Why did you leave us?" and "Can you ever be happy here?" You'll need to prove that going back is not a retreat, but rather an advance — for the company and for you.

Following the advice of his mentor, Wu wrote a business plan, outlining what he hoped to accomplish in the next two years — if Coopers took him back. "I didn't want to give the hiring partner the opportunity to doubt me," he says. "So I made sure he knew that I had set goals for my return that would take me several years to accomplish."

Wu describes the call to Coopers & Lybrand as being one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of his life. Sure enough, the hiring manager was very curious about why Wu would want to return. Once he heard Wu out, however, he agreed to see him.

"When we finally met for an interview, he didn't grill me," Wu says. "He had seen my plan, and he knew that it would take some time for me to accomplish my goals. At that point, he was acting more like my career counselor."

Wu got his job back, thanks mostly to his well-thought-out approach to the situation. Wu's strong performance during his first stint at Coopers also made it easier for him to return to an industry that's short on talent right now. Indeed, many boomerangers are finding that the talent crunch increases the odds of a second run.

Is it home that you're returning to?

If it is, don't go back. You can't advance if you're only returning to seek the comfort of the same old job at the same old office. Also, make sure that you're not returning to the same problems that caused you to leave in the first place — that, in fact, your company has changed for the better, and you're going back to a new challenge.

Finding that challenge was exactly the issue that Betty Szeto faced. She had to decide what sort of job she wanted so that going back to her old company would be worthwhile. Szeto, now 32, had traded her human-resources post in the San Francisco office of Kemper Insurance for a similar job at National Semiconductor. Although she learned a lot in the go-for-broke world of high tech, National Semi's stock swooned soon after her arrival, and the chip maker endured a round of job cuts. When Kemper called to tell her that her old job had never been filled, Szeto realized that she was eager to help her former company grow.

But going back proved to be particularly tricky: Not only did Kemper offer Szeto the same spot that she had left, but she would also be sitting at her old desk. For anyone concerned with advancing professionally, this was not good news.

So, before she agreed to take the new job, Szeto tried to find out just how similar that new job would be to her old one. She called her soon-to-be customers — the managers in Kemper's branch offices who would be asking her for help with HR matters. "Two years ago, management had done away with a lot of the HR staff," she explains. "I wanted to know whether HR was still valued. People said that they missed the interaction with HR. They were so bogged down in the business of doing business that they didn't have time to think about the business of people."

That was what Szeto had been hoping to hear. She also learned that Kemper was in a hiring mode, which meant that she could help shape the company's growth. Plus, her internal customers wanted to include her in everyday management meetings. All told, Szeto's job would be the same in name only — everything else about it would be radically different. Going back, she realized, would help her to get ahead.

Can you catch up with your ex-company?

Congratulations — you've won a return trip to your former company. You're ready to ride in on a white horse and contribute to a new era of growth. But not so fast. Has it occurred to you that your company may have progressed since you left? It may have new practices, new tactics, a new strategy. What will be your strategy for catching up?

One way to make a lousy first impression is to swoop in and announce that you have the answers to the company's problems. While you may have learned a great deal in your time away, take care to reconnect with your colleagues and to find out what they've learned.

After leaving Right Management Consultants in 1989, David Blank, 55, successfully developed new tests that help middle managers make career self-assessments. But he quickly tired of all of the traveling he was doing for his new employer, the Franklin Consulting Group. When the president of Right Management invited Blank back into the fold about 14 months later, Blank jumped at the chance. But he was in for a surprise when he returned.

"I had learned a lot in my time away," he says, adding that his first instinct was to bring some of that knowledge to bear on his old firm. "But Right had also evolved during my absence and had really made an impact with its work. I was humbled." Not only was the company's outplacement-consulting business humming, but Right was also making a successful move into executive coaching and into other areas of organizational development.

"Once I saw how much things had changed," Blank recalls, "I knew I needed to spend a lot of time just listening to coworkers." He quickly realized that he had to discard his old views on how Right should deliver its services.

"Doing things strictly by the book, with a checklist for each client, wasn't as important as I once thought it was," he says. "Instead of focusing on process, mechanics, and consistency of delivery, Right was paying more attention to learning about individual clients — and that allowed it to discover other services that clients might need." Blank didn't try to repeat his past successes at Right. Instead, he listened, learned, and realized that his new job offered more flexibility than he had ever imagined.

Are you a new hire — or an old hire?

So you go back to your former employer on Monday. How are you going to reconnect with your coworkers? You're new, but you're also old. How much of the old you still applies? And how can you get your old office mates to see the new you?

Whether you return to your old company after two weeks, like Ivan Wu, or after two years, some people will think that you're running from something. "People wanted to know why I'd left, and why I'd come back so quickly," Wu says. "I decided to be completely candid about my situation. After a week of telling and retelling my story, I started getting ribbed about it, which was a sign that at least my coworkers didn't take it too seriously."

Still, Wu admits that he was most concerned about losing credibility with his colleagues. While he couldn't control what people were saying behind his back, he was encouraged when a surprisingly large number of people complimented him on his courage. "Maybe they really thought that returning here was stupid," he says. "But I chose to read it as an indication that they respected me, because I was able to admit that I had made a mistake."

Throw your career for another loop?

Every boomeranger worries — and should — about how a second go-round at the same company will look to future recruiters. How can you prove to a prospective employer that you got ahead by going back?

For Wu, becoming a boomeranger allowed him to cancel out the noise — those voices telling him that ambitious people don't stay long at any one company. "By leaving, I learned just how hard it is to find another job that's as rewarding as the one I had," he says. "Coming back was a difficult and, at times, awkward process. But in some ways, I'm glad I endured it."

Chances are good, however, that Wu won't have to explain his quick U-turn the next time he looks for a job. It's easy enough to act like he never left by omitting that two-week hiatus from his résumé. Unfortunately, Betty Szeto, who spent 18 months at National Semiconductor, doesn't have that luxury. And that worries her.

"There's some real snobbery in the high-tech field," she says. "If I ever want to go back to it, a high-tech recruiter could easily take one look at my résumé and decide that I just couldn't hack it at National Semi."

Still, Szeto believes that she made the right choice: "I looked for the company that would give me the best opportunity to grow. I just happened to find it at a company where I had once worked."

Ron Lieber (rlieber@fastcompany.com) is a senior writer at Fast Company.

Action Item: Boomerang.Com

Although the age of lifetime employment at one company is mostly dead, the age of lifetime affiliation has only just begun. Aspiring boomerangers should keep this in mind and try to remain affiliated with their former employers.

Glenn Kaufman wants to make it easier for that to happen. Last year, he started Corporate Alumni, which helps companies to keep in touch with former employees — and former employees to keep in touch with one another. Kaufman is now searching for volunteers to host alumni sites for their ex-companies. To become a host, go to Corporate Alumni's Web site.

Coordinates: www.corporatealumni.com

Sidebar: Can This Career Be Saved?

You're thinking about getting back together with your ex-company, but you know you've got some explaining to do: Why you strayed. Why it was all a mistake. Why you can be trusted again. If all that sounds vaguely like you're trying to patch up a marriage, you're right.

We sought the counsel of Gloria G. Harris, a clinical psychologist and author (with Rona Subotnik) of "Surviving Infidelity" (Adams Media, 1993). She poses three questions to ask yourself if you hope to reconcile.

Was it just a fling? Did you leave your former company for the corporate equivalent of a one-night stand and quickly realize your mistake? Some threats to a partnership, whether in marriage or at work, are more serious than others.

Why did it happen? Reconciliation won't be possible unless you're honest about the mistakes you have made. If you want to get back together, both parties need to understand why you strayed in the first place. The good news: Direct, unambiguous conversation serves to strengthen most relationships.

Can the trust really be regained? You can't simply admit that you made a mistake and expect life to go back to the way it was. Rebuilding trust depends more on action than on words — you've got to earn that trust.

Sidebar: You Can't Go Back

Is going back to your ex-company worth the risk? Ben Slick, 40, doesn't think so. Before Slick became president and CEO of PeopleScape Inc., an electronic search firm, he turned down the chance to take a top job with a previous employer. Slick says he would never go back to a place where he's worked before. Here's why.

People won't trust you. Think about what happened when you left. There might have been a counteroffer that you rejected and that disappointed your boss. If, on your way out, you shared any negative feelings about the company, word will have gotten around. Why should people trust you when you return?

New places offer more opportunities to learn. Boomerangers add to their knowledge and skill base only incrementally, because they already know a lot about the company they're returning to. When I've switched companies, I've grown exponentially. An aspiring leader needs a broad worldview. You don't get that by going back.

Recruiters are suspicious of boomerangers. If you've done two tours at the same company, some people might hesitate to hire you. They'll think that you retreated to a safe spot to get your act together before you went back on the road.

Coordinates: Ben Slick, slick@peoplescape.com, PeopleScape Inc., www.peoplescape.com

Sidebar: Take the 'Rang Test

Boomerangers, like all job seekers, need to consider issues like salary, benefits, and growth opportunities before taking the great leap back. But prospective boomerangers must also grapple with a host of questions that are unique to their predicament. To help you test whether going back will get you ahead, ask yourself the following questions.

1. Did you run for your life? If your former workplace was toxic, don't bet that it's been magically detoxified since you left.

2. Were you a victim of a mass downsizing? Then returning will be a challenge: After all, someone at some time decided that you were redundant. You'll have to find some new way to repackage yourself.

3. Were people genuinely disappointed when you left? If not, you'll have to generate some enthusiasm for your return.

4. Did you make a graceful exit? You'll have a tougher time selling yourself if your parting was less than amicable.

5. Have you kept up with former colleagues? If you're out of their loop, you'll have a tougher time making an informed decision about whether to go back.

6. Did your former employer call you? If you were the one to initiate the boomerang conversation, you'll have to sell yourself harder to get back.

7. So you have an offer. Are former colleagues who are still at the company telling you to take the job? Consider yourself warned if your former coworkers are less than thrilled.

8. Do you think you can work through most of the problems you faced at your old company? Make a list of everything you disliked about your first stint there. If you think that more than half of those problems are beyond repair, forget about a second tour of duty.

9. Can you learn as much going back as you could going to someplace new? If the learning curve is flat, then going back may not be the best decision.

10. Are you considering boomeranging because you're having problems at your current company? You just might run into a whole new set of problems if you reenlist.

Sidebar: Exit Strategy

You'll kill any chance of going back to your company if you act like a jerk when you leave. Tom Shea, a 20-year veteran of the outplacement business, has seen many people destroy their chances of returning to their old company by behaving obnoxiously when they left. Shea, who runs the Florida and Caribbean offices of Right Management Consultants, has four tips for exiting gracefully.

Don't rush it. Forget about giving just two weeks' notice. It will take longer than two weeks for you to wrap up your work — and for your company to name your replacement.

Resist the urge to vent. Don't deliver a sermon on how the company's lousy strategy drove you away — even if it's true. You want to be remembered for your contributions, not for your dramatic departure.

Make a clean handoff. If you can't finish your work, make sure that your successor can handle the projects that you've left undone. Leave your phone number and email address with coworkers, so they can contact you if they need help.

Keep in contact — with everyone. Don't ignore your subordinates when you leave. The person who leads the next high-flying startup might well be the person who delivered your mail.

Coordinates: Tom Shea, toms@rightflorida.com

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