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How Getting Fired at 40 Changed My Career: Lessons Learned on Leadership

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In my early career, I was ambitious: hyper-focused on hitting my targets as a salesperson and drawn towards leadership positions. While I appeared successful on an external level—achieving financial and material goals, receiving promotions, and stepping into executive roles—the truth was that I had yet to find my true North. I didn’t know what I was really here to do. All of that imploded at age 40, when I was fired from a role created for me as President of Russell Athletics. I remember the day clearly—how dejected and disappointed I felt after being let go. When my kids came home from school, they were surprised to see their father playing basketball in the driveway instead of at work, where he was “supposed” to be. That day, I felt a way I hadn’t felt in decades: unwanted and unworthy. I was ashamed. After years of professional “success,” being fired was the first time in a long time I’d been knocked off my career pedestal. It sent me back into my childhood, reminding me of the poignant yet painful moment when I first learned I was adopted. In an instant, I felt like I had lost my dignity all over. However, though I didn’t know it then, being fired also saved my career.  It forced me to reflect on the areas where I needed to continue growing as a leader and to think critically about how I wanted to move forward in a meaningful way. It shaped me into a leader who wasn’t simply chasing financial goals or external validation, but rather someone who could truly make an impact on an organization. From that experience, I learned so much: why asking for feedback is critical to growth, the importance of emotional intelligence and a people-first approach as a leader, and why letting go of the need to be perfect is the best thing you can do for your career. Perhaps these lessons will help you, too.

How asking for feedback will change your career

After getting fired and letting myself stew in disappointment for 48 hours, I reached out to senior leaders who hired me and key colleagues to ask for feedback on my work performance. What I learned through this process is that constant improvement is part of the job. You need to ask people who you trust what they think of your leadership style, what you’re doing right, and where you still need to grow. These were things I neglected to do when I was in the role. Once I could see that, I was able to ask: What worked that I should have done more of? What should I have stopped doing or done less of?  Asking these questions was scary because I didn’t know what I’d hear. But I knew that to rebuild my career authentically, I would need to be vulnerable and look honestly at both my strengths and my shortcomings. My colleagues offered genuine, positive responses, like “Continue to build on your ability to mobilize people toward a cause” and “We’ll miss your teaching and coaching,” but they didn’t shy away from giving “negative” feedback, too. One of the key pieces of feedback I heard was that I needed to have more emotional intelligence. I received raw, unfiltered critiques that were even more challenging to hear, like the fact that I often became too emotionally invested and didn’t control my emotions well. These conversations also illuminated the fact that I had been so focused on external success, rather than on helping other people. It was all painful to hear, yet powerful to receive. By being willing to risk vulnerability in asking for others’ feedback and assessments of my leadership, I gained important perspectives that would define my strengths later.  With every critique I heard from former colleagues, I had to go back and ask myself, “Why am I really here?” It’s a question I continue to ask myself every day. I’m a builder by nature; I like to see people succeed. Many people reflected that I was a strong coach, yet they felt that I had stopped coaching them! And that’s when I realized: My goal was never to be an “executive.” Being an executive and having a fancy title, for me, had to do with my need for external validation rather than what I truly wanted or desired. What I wanted, on a deeper level, was to simply make an impact and be a purpose-driven leader who helps others. I wanted to coach, mentor, and build strong relationships that could last decades. I wanted to help employees become the best versions of themselves. From that moment on, I set out to look for positions at companies that valued people-first leadership, companies that could teach me more. Since then, for the past 16 years, my career has been defined by focusing on building trust and helping others succeed.

Building trust as a people-first leader

Building strong relationships and being a people-first leader requires trust. Whenever I meet a new employee, I ask them to tell me about their life, about the things they carry with them to work every single day, and what’s stopping them from feeling like they can do anything. Then, I ask about their professional and personal goals. This process has shown me that there is a balance between earning a living and creating a life where you can thrive. It’s given me a better perspective to work with others on my team when they are going through challenging times in their own lives and has helped me support them as people first, not just as employees. By asking them to tell me their stories, I focus more on who people are, rather than what they can accomplish for the business.  This has dramatically transformed how I lead and listen to others, and has also shown me the power of showing my own vulnerability as a leader. It’s okay to have high expectations for the business and employees, but you have to create a safety net where people are allowed to be human and have their own vulnerabilities. And, most importantly, if you work in a company where people truly care about each other and they are given the space to say “I need help,” it will increase your company’s cohesion and success like nothing else.

How to strengthen company culture, even in times of chaos

At Russell, my role was to galvanize the organization in a time when people were struggling. There was a lot of trial and error, and I was expected to deliver financial and operational results in a culture that didn’t have a lot of cohesion. In fact, I eventually realized that the other leaders at Russell were succeeding because they focused on evolving the business not alongside the culture of the company, but in spite of it. They had enough experience that the culture issues didn’t get to them. I, however, was trying to fix everything about our culture AND fix the business at the same time. It was too much. Ultimately, the senior leadership just wasn’t aligned. And if senior leadership isn’t aligned on the values, vision, and trajectory, things aren’t going to get done. However, this does NOT mean leadership has all the answers. In order to truly succeed and build an inclusive culture where everyone contributes and feels encouraged and empowered, we had to acknowledge that we didn’t always have the answers, be willing to explain our process of decision-making, and share that process with our teams so that they weren’t in the dark. I’ll never forget one of the great compliments I ever received: “Mike, you always take the time to explain decisions, options considered, and how you consulted with other key team members, and even if we don’t like them, we respect that someone has to decide where we go.” Teams don’t need to like their leaders’ decisions all the time, but they should be able to respect them and have an understanding of why something was done the way it was. The reality is, every business is going to experience ups and downs. There will be times of great growth, and there will be times of struggle or chaos. It’s not a lack of conflict that builds strong teams, but a willingness to be in the uncertainty. The key is being a leader who knows what’s going on when things are in chaos and can provide a path forward.  Going forward, I made sure to always think about how my decisions as a leader, or the company’s decisions as an organization, would affect the day-to-day experience of employees.

Letting go of being perfect makes you the leader you’re meant to be

While there’s no “one-size-fits-all” approach to leadership, I believe that the leader that we are all meant to be isn’t the one who has all the answers; it’s the leader who’s willing to lean into vulnerability, uncertainty, and even conflict, with grace. For so long, I lived my personal and professional life in a way where I was constantly afraid that people wouldn’t respect or like me, or, worse, that someone would abandon me. I subscribed to this unattainable idea of perfection—the idea that if I just did everything right, got the right promotions, and did my job well, I’d never be left behind. And then, it happened: I was fired. While getting fired was one of the most challenging experiences in my career, it ultimately illuminated the path I was on and redirected me toward one that better fit my true goals in a way that I’ll always be grateful for. We don’t need to be perfect. Goodness knows, we can’t be. We just need to be willing to look at ourselves honestly and grow, to believe in others and the strength of working as a team. Once I became okay with being uncomfortable and not knowing everything, that’s when things really worked. Being willing to embrace discomfort allowed me to show up as a stronger leader for the teams and organizations I worked with, for my family, and for myself.

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