Bounce back from setback
After a disgraced alcoholic made fashion headlines like he used to at New York Fashion Week, we were inspired to talk strategies on making a dream comeback after fortune’s blow
–Teja Lele Desai
It may be the New York success story of a British designer who hurt the Jewish and was saved from disgrace by a Caribbean couturier, but John Galliano’s rocking return at the just-concluded New York Fashion Week has got to be the most inspiring turnaround tale for young professionals who may have suffered a career setback.
Galliano turned from the fashion industry’s poster boy into a pariah overnight, when in March 2011, he was sacked as design head of luxury French fashion house Christian Dior after he was video-filmed at a Parisian café, saying, “I love Hitler” before telling an Italian woman, who wasn’t Jewish: “People like you would be dead. Your mothers, your forefathers, would all be f****** gassed.” Galliano, who was sentenced to pay a fine after a French court found him guilty, admitted that he was an alcoholic who had “descended into the madness of the disease… I have expressed my sorrow privately and publicly for the pain which I caused, and I continue to do so. I remain committed to making amends to those I have hurt.”
On February 12, Galliano returned to the glorious ramp of New York Fashion Week, but as an intern of veteran American designer Oscar de la Renta. The 80-year-old’s generous gesture, at a time when no one was willing to touch the bad boy, hauled the maverick out of obscurity as his eccentric stamp was all over the designs that wowed fashionistas.
Galliano isn’t the only one who, like the incredibly athletic and arrogant Icarus, flew too close to the sun. Celebrities who have had a phenomenal rise to fame and suddenly fallen from grace are many. Bill Clinton, Tiger Woods, and most recently, Lance Armstrong are included in this hall of shame. Woods, one of the world’s best golfers, found himself embroiled in a high-profile sex scandal. Armstrong, who won the Tour de France a record seven times, had a fall from grace when he admitted to doping. Once admired and feted, theywent into free fall after displaying atypical lapses in professional judgment or personal conduct.
Clearly, these celebrities came up against a deadly foe. Their own self. Their hubris indicates a loss of contact with reality. Why else would they forget that nemesis usually trails hubris? Disgraced, shamed and humiliated, a few manage to pick up the pieces. Many, however, can’t channel their public humiliation elsewhere and fail to rebuild their lives.
In Comebacks: Powerful Lessons from Leaders Who Endured Setbacks and Recaptured Success on Their Terms, Andrea Redmond and Patricia Crisafulli profiled 10 influential business leaders who had a fall from grace amid extreme media scrutiny and bounced back. Over the course of their research, the authors realised what was common to all 10 business leaders: “introspection, resilience, having a plan and being deliberate, and a relook at what success means”.
All that sounds good on paper, but tackling public setbacks and negative criticism isn’t easy. Coping with them successfully and staging a comeback is even tougher — more so in the corporate world where a scandal can be akin to hara-kiri. How then does one turn the clock back?
Introspect. The initial shock may lead you to believe that the glass isn’t half full, but clean empty. It’s natural to feel that you will now lose all that you have worked towards your entire working life. “This is natural, but you have to be patient through a difficult time to avoid further damage by any means,” says Dr Hansal Bhachech, consultant psychiatrist. “Once you are over the initial shock, introspect. Try to understand what went wrong — this pondering will lead to clarity and let you accept the responsibility of committing that mistake. You need to be brutally honest with yourself — it’s the only way you can move forward,” he suggests.
Own up. Take responsibility for your actions. Whatever the problem, and no matter how grave, come clean and address the issue. Be prepared to face the consequences as humbly as you can. This shows that you want to make amends and will help you regain respect. “When in damage control mode, whether it’s for something immoral, unethical or has led to hurt feelings, you must own up and apologise. Denial ends up eroding your image further. Lance Armstrong’s initial denial damaged his public image terribly,” says Chetna Mehrotra, who heads an image consultancy and specialises in celebrity image management.
Rewire your mind. It may seem like the end of the world, but it isn’t. Every individual’s life includes a series of crests and troughs. The right attitude and frame of mind can help you bounce back from a dip. “You will need to train your mind to do this, to get used to the idea that you may have to start from scratch. Focus on your experience, play to your strengths. Forgetting the past and focusing on the future may not be easy, but it must be done to move on successfully,” Dr Bhachech says. Even the mighty have fallen and risen again, points out Mehrotra. “You too can regain credibility with effective strategies. Be more accessible to those around you and develop a connect. Listen more, talk less.”
Closer home, author and cofounder of Aleph Book Company, David Davidar is one of the most respected names in Indian publishing despite a sudden exit from Penguin Canada after charges of sexual harassment were leveled against him by a colleague. While they presented contrasting versions of what exactly had transpired, Davidar’s image tackled the setback well, and by his own admission in interviews, he was flooded with offers after he quit his job. Insiders say it’s his professional history and network among influential authors that worked in his favour.
Never do it again. This may seem a no-brainer but common sense isn’t always common. Change whatever you have to ensure there’s no repeat — your lifestyle, habits, even your friends. An aberration happens once; no one will stand by you if you slip a second time. Dr Bhachech says, “Realisation, acceptance and regaining one’s strength may be essential to overcome this fall from grace. One more thing is a must: Move on, but never forget the dark chapter. Remembering ensures you won’t go down that path again.”
Keep a low profile. Stay out of the news to ensure that the smoke settles. Limit your exposure to regain your reputation — if you’re trying to send the message that the drunken brawl at an office party was a oneoff, don’t hit the bars with colleagues the next Friday night. Take on whatever work comes your way and do the best you can. In Galliano’s case, it seemed that the eccentric designer had dug his own grave and climbed into it. Luckily, Oscar de la Renta offered to yank him out of disgrace.
Reinvent yourself. A public setback may be the best time to explore uncharted waters. Everyone’s favourite story, of course, is of Amitabh Bachchan’s turnaround in early 2000. After what could be the most trying period of his life, and amid the Bofors controversy, major flops and a financial mess at his production company ABCL, the superstar took a leap of faith with a medium he wasn’t familiar with — television. “Bachchan bounced back as host of Kaun Banega Crorepati, regained respect and standing, and continues to be this country’s most admired icon. In fact, when Cadbury was in a spot after its worm controversy, they chose Amitabh to be their brand ambassador. He helped rebuild their trust and integrity. That’s one of the best examples of change in public perception,” Mehrotra says.
What can you do? Train the spotlight on your work and try to add value to your brand. Take a course, enhance your skills, offer to take on more work than you usually do and ensure that you meet deadlines. Do all that you can to place yourself in the best possible light to tweak perception.
In life, ups must be accompanied by downs. Accept what life brings you with grace, and then attempt to define your path and rebuild yourself. A public setback or scandal may never be totally forgotten. But if you tackle the aftermath well, colleagues, neighbours and acquaintances will root for you. After all, who doesn’t love a story of human resilience?
WOODS GOT RIGHT WITH REPENTANCE
TIGER WOODS, the highest paid sportsperson in the world, was married to a top model and had two children. In 2009, reports of infidelity with a nightclub manager surfaced. Then, a scandal involving 10 other women — prostitutes, porn stars and waitresses — surfaced. Woods was dropped by sponsors, lost form, withdrew from tournament play, went in for sex rehab, and got divorced. But he’s back in form. California-based crisis management expert Blair Bernstein, says in a paper titled Crisis Management and Sports in the Age of Social Media: A Case Study Analysis of the Tiger Woods Scandal, that Woods’ approach was effective in shifting online conversations away from the scandal and back to his game. Woods’ statements were heavy on “mortification, repentance and suffering”. The mortification strategies, his many apologies and decision to keep his head down may have led people to look beyond his personal failings.