10 Things I learned at 29 when my firm – Drexel Burnham Lambert – went away…
A note to the junior and mid-level people who recently lost their firm…
1. Priorities: Drexel was all consuming. It was easy to define yourself by your job and the rest of the world was second. Maybe it was my age or the fact that everything we did seemed so exciting and important. It felt literally like I was working in the center of the financial universe and there was even an X that marked the spot. There were rumors and in our hearts we knew the end was possible, but like a relative’s death, you don’t believe it or know how you will feel until it actually happens. The sense of loss and sadness was profound and the thought that the people around you (many you loved, some not so much) would never again be connected to you in the same way was hard to accept. That said, I was given the gift of being reminded that at the end of the day, it was just a job, and what mattered most was my young wife, our dreams to begin our family, my parents, siblings, grandparents and friends. To all of them, I was no different. I was never special because I worked at a certain firm in an exciting industry. The people who care about you will always care about you. Sometimes you have to lose something you think is the most important thing in the world to realize it really never was.
2. Resilience: We humans are very strong, and you don’t accidentally walk into a job in our industry. As is often the case, the job market was horrible when I lost my job, which only compounds the pain. That said, in hindsight I made the right decision for me to immediately do everything in my power to get right back on the horse and try again. There were people who decided to take time off and “recharge their batteries,” or do some other type of “soul searching.” That is right for some people, but it wasn’t right for me. I couldn’t imagine anything more stressful than “recharging my batteries” or “searching for my soul” when I had no money coming in. I felt like I could only “relax” once I was back on the right trajectory. I wound up working on the liquidation of Drexel for a few months, and on a Friday, I turned in one of the very last Drexel keycards, and on Monday I started calling future clients from Jefferies. That was 34 years ago. Never underestimate your ability to quickly bounce back and land on your feet.
3. Awareness: There were co-workers around me who were trampling over others to find a safe life raft for themselves. There were co-workers around me who went out of their way to be kind to everyone (starting with the assistants) by helping as many as possible best land on their feet. You see the very best in people in times of upheaval, and unfortunately you see the very worst. Having your eyes wide open during these very rare but incredibly telling points of time will give you incredible perspective for the rest of your career. It can teach you the type of person you want to be and the type of person you want to always avoid. Having your eyes forced open to see the good and bad in human nature can be one of the most valuable gifts you can receive.
4. Appreciation: It is easy to dwell on all that is wrong with your job and lament about all the people at work who drive you nuts. Somehow it is much easier to remember and relish all the good parts when the opportunity is unfairly and suddenly snatched away. This is a great thing to remember when you start your new job. Appreciate your opportunity, the chance to learn, and the people you are constantly exposed to. When the inevitable problems surface, be part of the solution and spend the majority of your time focusing on the positive aspects of your daily work life.
5. Self-Reflection: When you are on the career treadmill cranked to 10, it is hard to assess if you are happy doing what you do. When everything is unexpectedly taken away from you, it is easy to let the defense mechanisms set in and conclude that you always hated the job anyway. Now you will be thrust into a process of trying to decide if you stay at a new firm (I didn’t have that as even a remote option), go to a new firm doing the same thing, or try something completely different. There is also the “group think” dynamic that makes it very easy to do absolutely no self-reflection and just try to maneuver yourself into what others are doing. I would encourage being flexible enough to seriously consider all next steps and exclude none. If you are open to all and give everything serious effort and consideration, odds are that you will learn a lot about yourself and the opportunities and this will help you make the best choice for you. This needs to happen quickly because good opportunities don’t linger. Make your decision based on the people you are joining, because that is what ultimately matters most. Trust your gut and go all in once you decide.
6. Perspective: This might be the first time in your life something bad has happened to you. There is zero time to ask yourself, “why me?” You can’t see it now, but this event isn’t squat in the scheme of your life. You have your health, family, friends, intelligence, personality, and education. This is a small obstacle on your path through life that will prepare you for when really bad things happen, like they do to all of us. Spend no time worrying that others are passing you by in your career. Spend no time reminiscing all that was great about your last experience while fanaticizing that nothing was wrong. Pick yourself up now, pick up others around you, and just get to work putting your career back where you want it to be.
7. Humility: One second you can be on top of the world and the envy of your friends and peers. You’re the one they come to for advice as you have all the answers. The next second you can be unemployed in a tough job market and unsure which end is up or down. If this doesn’t teach you how to act when you once again find yourself on top of the world, nothing will.
8. Relationships: The bonds with your co-workers can disappear, or you can go out of your way to cement them during periods like this. I highly recommend the latter. People are people and just because down the road you may have different business cards, doesn’t mean your ex-coworkers cannot remain incredibly important and meaningful in your life. If you work hard at it, these people can become critical future clients, business partners, friends, spouses, or even friendly competitors. The quality of your relationships was never defined by the name of the firm on your business card. You have had the luxury of being labeled a team by virtue of joining the same organization. That doesn’t have to end because your company is no longer.
9. Maturity: Welcome to the big boys’ and big girls’ table. You can read about companies ending in the papers or hear from boomers like me how things “used to be,” but you now know firsthand how fragile everything in life is. Health is fragile, relationships are fragile, trust is fragile, and companies are fragile. With the benefit of hindsight, it turns out that a series of sub-optimal decisions, coupled with unforeseen circumstances, can destroy even the largest and strongest of companies. You can take this knowledge and easily get jaded and never allow yourself to get emotionally engaged with your job and career again. Or you can take this knowledge and decide you are going to grow and act differently when you take your new position. Knowing how fragile companies can be, maybe now you will speak up about culture and risk to make sure everyone is being the best they can be. Maybe you will take part in the recruiting process to make sure only quality people come to your firm. Maybe you will ask the questions that need to be asked, when before you decided it was safer to be quiet. If this experience causes you to step up and think like an owner (even if you are still junior) at your new firm, congratulations. You are now part of the solution, and every firm needs this help.
10. Pride: I remember the overwhelming feeling of embarrassment when my firm disappeared. The media, competitors and even (so-called) friends all had opinions, judgements and incredible “Monday morning quarterback” solutions. Plenty of people shed tears of joy about my firm’s (and my) predicament. It was easy to feel embarrassed, naïve or stupid about losing my job and reading what people had to say. I never bought into that narrative, not even for a second. I knew the people I worked with. I saw what we accomplished together. I saw how our clients appreciated us and the loyalty that permeated the organization. I knew I did nothing wrong, and I also knew that some bad decisions by others caused the ultimate outcome and did not reflect badly upon me as an individual. The exact same is true for each of you today. You should wear your badge with honor and take it with you, wherever you go. You will have a bond with your co-workers because there is nothing more solidifying than being through a war together, even if the outcome is not what you wanted. As time passes, people will see many of your team go on to do great things in finance or elsewhere. People will ask, what was in the water over there as a lot of great people came from that place. When you see each other there will be an immediate bond and an unspoken appreciation of what you learned and accomplished together. Move on, but always be proud.