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Bouncing Back When You Get Passed Over: Prepare to Become GC Tomorrow When You Didn’t Today

Losing out on an internal promotion can be surprising, discouraging and—let’s face it— even downright humiliating. Although things weren’t yet official, the interviews and office buzz had you feeling confident and ready to embrace this thrilling new chapter in your career.

As deflated as you might feel after being told you won’t advance to the GC role, it’s important to not let this setback derail you. Shifting your mindset and handling the disappointment with poise and professionalism can make you more likely to attract future opportunities.

What Happened?

Even the most well-groomed general counsel candidate should understand there are no guarantees. Anything can happen, so that person needs to keep expectations managed and not simply assume they’re going to get the position.

There are myriad things that can impact a formal (or informal) GC succession plan, including:

  • The current GC leaves or retires before the successor is fully ready.
  • The board decides to go with an external candidate.
  • The CEO asks the current GC to stay with the company.
  • The company experiences a financial crisis.

A company might be undergoing a complex merger or acquisition or be entangled in litigation. The powers-that-be may decide they want a seasoned GC instead of a greener internal candidate. In other cases, the departing GC insists on bringing in their person from the outside.

Even interim GCs don’t necessarily have a guaranteed path to permanency. Strategically, a company may want another, more experienced candidate for the long term.

Perfect Your Poker Face

When it comes to being considered for a GC role, it helps to think of it like being nominated for an Oscar. Meaning, you have to have to be ready to lose—and lose gracefully. If you react with anger, people will remember that you were a poor loser and view you as someone who lacks emotional intelligence and maturity. Don’t underestimate the power and reach of workplace gossip, which can damage your reputation in the long run.

Be ready for the unexpected and have a game plan in place if things don’t go your way. If you’re extremely upset, don’t let anyone in the office get wind of it. Instead, give yourself a “time-out” away from the work setting and call someone you trust—your spouse or a friend or family member—to air your grievances.

In the office, the most appropriate way to handle the situation is by letting the executive team know it was an honor to have been considered for the position. Instead of burning bridges, this will help preserve your relationship with your employer and colleagues.

You’ll want to start looking for a new position if you get passed over for advancement, but don’t just leave without securing a destination. While your company may want you to stay on, the new GC could feel threatened by you or at the very least, may not feel as if you support their success.

Turn a Negative into a Positive

If your company involved an external search firm to fill the GC role, that represents a great relationship-building opportunity. Talk directly with the recruiter you interviewed with and get some honest feedback on what you can do to be more GC-ready in the future. A lawyer who shows self-possession and drive will be perceived as a viable candidate for upcoming opportunities.

While you’re searching for something new, how you behave can make all the difference. Practice grace and stay self-aware. Consider stepping up to work with the new GC as a way to show goodwill and check off some experience boxes. This is a chance to gain valuable skills that will serve you well down the road. Moreover, if the new GC doesn’t work out—and you stay the course—you’ll have shown you’re a team player. And you could ultimately land the position.

The bottom line: Missing the general counsel boat can be a grueling test for any ambitious and experienced lawyer. However, understanding the big picture is vital. In other words, you may have lost the battle, but if you carry yourself with dignity, you don’t have to lose the war. Ups and downs are just an inevitable part of any occupation. How you deal with them will demonstrate your worth as a professional and set you up for career wins further down the road. 

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