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7 female executives who were fired share their advice

Getting fired is no fun. Seven leaders explain how it happened to them—and how the experience made them stronger.

7 female executives who were fired share their advice
[Photo: Halfpoint/iStock]

The mere thought of getting fired is enough to make any professional anxious. But, as some leaders have found, a pink slip can actually end up being more like a permission slip—at least in retrospect. According to a 10-year research study conducted by Elena L. Botelho and Kim R. Powell in their book The CEO Next Door, 91% of people who were once let go found a position that was better than their last one. The key is to use your experiences to your advantage. Here, seven successful female executives share what it was like to be fired and how it made them stronger:

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“It’s completely okay to change your mind.”

When she was in the thick of law school, Vicki Fulop had a realization: She wasn’t meant to be a lawyer. She wanted to work in a creative industry. After finishing her degree, she dipped her toe into fashion and beauty public relations. She loved being part of the storytelling process, and, looking back, these experiences would teach her how to build buzz for a brand.

In 2014, she was fired from an agency, and, though she describes the experience as painful and scary, it was also a relief. Looking for an outlet for her stress while she figured out her next move, she dedicated her time to getting her then-little-known company Brooklinen off the ground.

That’s when she decided to make the leap. “‘Why not go full-time into this startup and see where it takes me?'” she thought. “I already didn’t have the security of a salary or health insurance—so oddly, as tough as it was for me to lose my job, it was also completely freeing, because there was . . . no security to leave behind.”

A month after she lost her job, she launched Brooklinen’s first Kickstarter campaign with her husband, Rick, and they raised $260,000. From then on, it’s been one growth milestone after another.

For Fulop, the greatest takeaway was the freedom to change her mind. After all, she did it in law school, after graduation—and even now. “Don’t let anyone put you in a box or tell you what you’re capable of,” she says. “I find it incredibly rewarding to be able to pursue multiple paths in one lifetime and to connect the dots looking backward.”

“You must advocate for yourself.”

Shital Mars has been fired not once, but twice. The first time, she worked briefly as an executive assistant at a bank. From day one, it was clear the office was chaotic and messy, so she took on the challenge of reorganizing. Though her intentions were good, her efforts weren’t appreciated, because she had yet to build trust in her employer, she says. She was let go.

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A few years later, she was hired by a stockbroker who was looking for a sales intern via craigslist. She took the unpaid intern role, where she sent faxes, managed paperwork, and tied up loose ends. However, pitching wasn’t her forte, and she often refused to call leads back because she felt awkward. The broker tried to fire her, but she decided to go to the owner and advocate for herself: “I marched into his office and said, ‘I know that I’m not good at sales, but there are a lot of things I am good at, and I know there are a lot of things around here that I could do for you.’ I asked him to keep me around as an administrative assistant, and luckily for me, he did,” she says.

It was a smart choice, especially since that owner is now the controlling shareholder in the company she runs as CEO, Progressive Care. Her greatest lesson? Being your own biggest fan, and admit weaknesses so you can overcome them. “The thing about setbacks is that they are what you make of them. Being fired taught me to find the strength to advocate for myself instead of just giving up or letting this moment define me negatively.”

“Be scrappy—and hustle.”

When Amanda Sains was fired, it wasn’t just about losing a job—she also felt lost in a new city. She had accepted an opportunity to direct marketing for a startup and relocated to Los Angeles to take the gig. Within six months, it became clear she butted heads with one of the founders, and that their leadership styles weren’t a match. One morning, she was called to a coffee shop away from the office.

Though the founder reassured her she was doing a great job and the team loved her, they had decided to go in a different direction. “I couldn’t believe this was happening. I was embarrassed, I was ashamed, and I was blindsided. I wanted to make it work, but they had already made up their mind,” she says.

After the conversation, she hopped on her bicycle and started pedaling as slowly as possible along the beach as she made calls. She knew she would figure it out, and she was determined to remain in Orange County. Sains was only unemployed for 31 days, and today, she’s the senior brand manager for Joolies Organic Medjool Dates. More than anything, she says the experience taught her that she was scrappy and a hustler.

“Being fired is very much like a breakup: The immediate moment is painful and can seem earth-shattering. But you will look back on it after the dust has settled and be like ‘Wow, I’m so glad that didn’t work out,”” she says. “Let yourself deal with the immediacy, but [know] you’ll find yourself exactly where you need to be very soon.”

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“Sometimes, there are issues beyond your control.”

While in college, Kellie Sirna worked for a home builder and was fired by the owner’s nephew. The reason? She outsold him, and he thought it made him look bad. Until that experience, Sima thought being a high achiever would automatically translate into career success. What she didn’t anticipate is that there are issues that are out of an employee’s control. Now, as the cofounder of Studio 11 Design, she says despite the outcome, she doesn’t regret working so hard in her first gig, and she realizes that sometimes, a bad fit is just that: a bad fit.

When there are obstacles within your career that you can’t prepare for—a downsizing, a bad manager, you name it—she says to not be afraid of feedback but also to take it with a grain of salt. And if unlucky fortune comes your way, Sima suggests using it as an opportunity to reflect. “Make a list of everything you loved about your job, everything you didn’t, and your career goals for the next 5, 10, and 15 years. Get excited for how you will grow because of this experience. Being fired will make you stronger, more self-aware, and a better employee for the next role.”

“How you treat people matters.”

At the age of 22, Colleen Mathis was fresh out of college, working as an intern at an agency in New York City. Having made the move from upstate, she worked long hours but felt as if she was living the dream. However, three months into the job, she experienced a death in her family. She took bereavement time off, and on the day she returned, she was fired. To put it lightly, Mathis says, she was crushed and vowed she would never treat an employee the same way.

Now, she’s the owner and CEO of Absolute R Relations, and her experience has informed her belief in the importance of running a kind workplace. “Being fired is not fun. It’s scary. You feel like less of yourself. . . . But you do learn from it,” she says. “It taught me how to treat people—and how not to.”

“Nothing is forever—and that’s okay.”

Nicole Pomije’s boss told her if she couldn’t produce something in five minutes—without any resources—she should put her keys on the desk and leave. Realizing she would never meet this unreasonable deadline, she packed up and headed out. It was a brave choice as a 23-year-old, especially since it meant walking away from her first real job as a conference manager, performing administrative tasks and organizing freelance consultants. Even though she was new to the business world, she realized that she didn’t want to work in a hostile environment.

Pomije went on to land a great job at a growing startup. She followed better people and eventually used her skills to start her own consultancy and open up a bakery, The Cookie Cups. She says she abides by the motto “Nothing is forever.” “The sooner you understand that perspective, the better off you will be,” she says. “Keep the jobs, employees, and people that matter around. The rest, let go,”

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“Where you are is not where you will land.”

When Tracy Litt was 38 years old, she was on the top of her game. As the vice president of management and acquisition for a healthcare consulting firm, she led a team and worked overtime to reach goals. But then an unexpected phone call from the company’s president letting her know they were eliminating not only her role, but her department, changed everything.

At first, she says, the phone line went silent. And then, she took a deep breath and thanked him for the opportunity, while staying calm. It was through this shock that she realized an important truth she follows today: “Where you are is not where you will land.”

She decided to return to school and shift gears. Today, she’s a mindset coach and the author of the best-selling book Worthy Human, where she shares many of these positive mental strategies. “It taught me to trust myself. . . . Stop infusing negative meaning into it, simply because it was unexpected or not what you think you want,” she says. “Everything leads you to where you are meant to be.”

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