How I Nearly Got Fired

Finding a safe space after missteps

Nearly all mentoring and coaching conversations involve some discussion of leaving your comfort zone. Put another way, you learn best at the edge of abject terror. There are few echelons of that terror comparable to the fear of losing your job, especially when you have small children, a mortgage and an unclear career trajectory. Enough time has passed that I can relate this story with credit where due, preserving the privacy of the people and places involved.

A decade into its technical domain, Sun Microsystems had generated momentum in the financial services sector with “digital trading floors:” workstations that showed multiple views into a market, order book, ticker plant and risk management systems. I had finished an architecture for a new trading floor design that incorporated some new ideas around price distribution and assembling complex trades; it was more of a data and transaction flow view than actual working code. What started on a whiteboard turned into a white paper with my name and affiliation on it.

About a week later, one of the executives at that particular customer called Scott McNealy (then CEO of Sun Microsystems) and demanded my resignation. My nerdy whitepaper was used to generate some harsh internal criticism of strategy and organization and with my name on it, I was responsible. Scott’s assistant called my boss’s boss, and me, to let us know what had happened. My mouth went dry as my thoughts raced backwards: My wife is pregnant. I just bought (another) house. What am I going to do next (this was early 1990s so technical skills were not quite mainstream in job postings, and there was no Internet on which to look for them anyway).

Scott spoke to the customer, got the full scope of the situation, and handed it to our sales executive (I’ll call him “P” for shorthand) to remedy. P and I went to go see the customer, where I got an appropriate reprimand and better understanding of the dynamics and my involvement, however unintentional. After that tense meeting, P took me out for lunch (instead of ejecting me at the office) and we talked about my thoughts on technology, his views of the market (he was personally responsible for quite a bit of the company’s regional growth), and where they intersected.

When I found myself in a similar management situation a few years ago, I remembered the lessons I learned, painfully and with abject terror, over those few days:

  • Have your employees’ backs. Scott and his team listened and responded, but they did so without taking extreme action. I never forgot the employee commitment and kindness of Scott and his intermediate executive chain. When Scott stepped down in 2012, I related this anecdote from two decades prior as it captured his best qualities as CEO.

  • Know your stakeholders. It’s not just the people who are your customers or your partners. It’s the transitive closure of their relationships who will be impacted by what you do, and their view of your contributions. I mis-read the situation badly, not seeing past the instant gratification of a whitepaper with a by-line.

  • Situational awareness is paramount. Sun could have lost a customer and an employee, but instead retained both (and both managed to grow over the ensuring decade). Building a plan of action to address the defect (my mis-reading of the political landscape), and to meet the real goals (building a better trading system and creating a more competitive landscape) resolved the conflict with an appropriate mea culpa for confirmation.

  • Vulnerability changes the power dynamic. That lunch was formative in how I approach mentoring relationships. I saw how the manager-employee relationship changed when the topic was important to both of us - first when my line executive was defusing a customer situation, and second when his conversation pulled me into thinking about next steps. “Tell me how” prompts are an aperture into strategic vulnerability; when executives imply that they don’t know all of the answers and that your contributions matter, you become significantly more vested in the longer-term strategic issues.

The net net is that I was able to survive a strategic failure because my organization created a safe space, where failure was an opportunity to course correct instead of punish the offender.