How to bounce back from a career setback

The key is having a survival plan.
By Teri Saylor

Whether it's a layoff, a failed project, being passed over for a job or promotion, or even being fired, most CPAs will experience a setback at some point in their careers. By taking the right steps, however, they can recover from these events and even come back stronger than before.

Joseph Rugger, CPA, CGMA, who spoke about learning from failure at the 2017 EDGE Experience conference in New Orleans, estimates most CPAs will experience three or four defining moments in their careers. "The high achievers will recognize these defining moments and bounce right back," said Rugger, director of accounting at Jonesboro Prosthetic & Orthotic Laboratory of Jonesboro, Ark.

Rugger and career experts offer the following tips on resilience and survival:

  • Take time to reflect. Often when people suffer a setback, they either go into a depression or they try to rebound immediately, said Joyce E. A. Russell, Ph.D., the Helen and William O'Toole Dean of the Villanova School of Business in Villanova, Pa. "It is better to take some downtime and avoid doing anything rash, like lashing out in anger," she said. "Instead, take deep breaths. Go for a hike. Get some exercise. Do something you enjoy."
  • Create a survival plan. First, determine what happened and take some time to grieve, Russell advises. Then compartmentalize your emotions and create a plan for moving on. "Set some goals and objectives, and work on your relationships," she said.  "It's hard to admit failure, but if you have people in your life you can trust to open up to and goals for moving forward, you can bounce back."
  • Own your career—including your mistakes. "Take ownership of your situation," said Rugger, a graduate of the AICPA Leadership Academy. For example, he said, "if you get laid off, learn what signs you might have ignored, own the mistakes you made, get better, and know that you are in charge of your career. Do your best to figure out how to respond when you find yourself facing similar challenges in the future."

    The same goes for setbacks in which you may have played a part. "Facing disciplinary action or losing your job is typically not a lightning bolt out of the blue," said Bruce Clarke, president and CEO of Capital Associated Industries of Raleigh, N.C., a not-for-profit organization for employers. "Take all of your defenses down and put them away. Learn all you can about what happened, and think about how to improve."

  • Polish your skills. A setback can signal that you need better communication or relationship skills, according to Russell, who advises CPAs to seek feedback on what they need to work on.

    Rugger recommends being purposeful and strategic with continuing education. Pursue it even if your organization won't pay for it, Rugger said: "Do spend the money to get the skills you need, even outside the traditional accounting skill set."

  • Develop a support network. A strong support group that includes mentors, trusted friends, family members and even professional career coaches can help you stay focused and positive in the face of setbacks or failures.

    "Build your networks, hone your relationships and be proactive about seeking out mentors, both inside and outside your employer and your profession," Russell said. "Become active in a state CPA society or the AICPA, and take advantage of opportunities to network and build your leadership skills."

To give yourself confidence going forward, recall obstacles you've overcome in the past. As Rugger noted, CPAs all have one major accomplishment in common: They've passed one of the most difficult professional licensing exams out there. "We come from a place of resilience," he said.

Teri Saylor is a freelance writer in Raleigh, N.C. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a senior editor for magazines and newsletters at the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants.

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