January 17, 2017

How to Handle the "Hit in the Mouth"​

For my money, the greatest quote about strategy was not spoken by General Schwarzkopf. It is not in Sun Tzu's Art of War, nor in Musashi's Book of the Five Rings. Genghis Khan didn't say it. Nor did Napoleon or Caesar. And no, it was not even spoken by Michael Porter of the Harvard Business School who wrote the definitive book on Corporate Strategy.

The greatest insight about strategy was spoken by a man with a tattoo on his face...the boxer Mike Tyson. Before I get to the quote, a little background might help. 

Mike Tyson, in his prime, was a one man wrecking crew with arguably the most devastating punching power ever seen in the heavyweight ranks. Most of the fighters who got in the ring with him were knocked out in a few rounds...many in the first round. In fact, in the Junior Olympics one of his opponents lasted a mere 8 seconds. (As an aside, if there is some report you don't feel like working on right now or an email you don't want to compose, go to YouTube and search for video on Tyson's fastest knockouts. Whether you are religious or not, you may find yourself murmuring, “Lord have mercy.”)

Here is what Tyson had to say about strategy: "Everyone has a strategy until they get hit in the mouth."

"Everyone has a strategy until they get hit in the mouth." Mike Tyson

Remember the boxers that got into the ring with him were highly trained fighters. They knew how to "take a punch." And they knew how Tyson fought. Going into those fights, every single one of the boxers had a strategy for how they were going to beat him.

Until they got hit in the mouth.

Then those strategies, if his opponents were even still conscious or conscious of them, went out the window and the strategy was, “How do I get out of the ring alive?”

We all have strategies: Strategies for our businesses. Strategies for our functions. Strategies for our careers. Strategies for raising our kids. What the Tyson quote reminds us is that your strategy is woefully inadequate if you don't actually define what getting hit in the mouth means and have a plan for how you will recover and respond. It could be a strategy that allows you to come back and win…a “pivot” in the vernacular of business today...but then too it might just be a strategy for surviving…for "getting out alive" and fighting another day in another arena.

This is not a post about having to pivot after a failed business strategy. This is a post about when your career suffers a set-back: you don't get a job you were in the running for, you get layered, your company gets acquired and you lose responsibilities, you get laid off, you get fired, etc. Depending on the circumstances and how much you had riding on the job in question, these outcomes can range from disappointing to devastating.

I serve as a volunteer mentor with Women Unlimited in their year-long development program for early to mid-career women. Part of the offering is to pair the women with experienced mentors they can use as sounding boards and for business or career coaching.

A few years ago, one of the women assigned to my team had recently been moved from one job to another. She wasn't fired fired, but it was clear she was not delivering and they moved her into an Individual Contributor role. It had happened months before I met her but she was still reeling, as many do, from encountering setbacks.

Now it is true that a “tincture of Time” is the best healer and that eventually she would absorb the hurt and the lessons and get refocused. But she didn't have time for that. She was in a new job in the same company with a lot of eyes on her performance and she needed to quickly bounce back and start executing.

I walked her through a four-phased approach for dealing with the blow. For the first phase, I asked her to spend 15 mins a day either writing about what happened or talking out loud and recording her thoughts.

A rather quotidian recommendation you might say. But the goal for Phase 1 was not to be logical and calmly note the lessons learned. What I was looking for from her was a full-throated, howling jeremiad: about how unfair it was, about how capricious and unfounded the decision was, about how they were too narrowly focused and did not see the positives, about how she never got any support or any feedback until it was too late...about how embarrassed she was, about how hopeless the situation with her new job and her career at the company was. 

This is not an all-day process. It does not go on for hours. Set a timer and spend fifteen minutes letting the emotions around the event cook. 

This is a key step when processing hurts: you have to let the emotion burn off before you can start getting rational about what happened and what to do. If you try to do it the other way around, my experience is that the unprocessed hurt and fear and sadness will sabotage your efforts and interactions.

For how many days do you do this, you ask? Until you have burned your wood. Until there is little to no energy or heat in the lament.

For Phase 2, I asked her to teach me how to fail on a project like hers…teach me how to “screw it up.” This is designed to try to review past actions and in-actions in a more playful way: I am not just a screw-up: I am going to become a Professor who teaches people how to not get what they want in situations like this! The goal of this second phase is to try to use a bit of levity to extract the lessons learned. 

For the woman I was mentoring, she had a few key insights. First, she had not been consistent about status readouts and she wasn’t always ready with her elevator pitch so that when she had passing moments with key stakeholders she did not appear to be on top of her game. Another was that she lost enthusiasm for the project and let it show. And finally, she did not do enough to reach out for help and support around the areas she did not understand as well, feeling it would show weakness. After Phase 2, she knew where she dropped the ball, and what she wanted to do differently going forward. 

The goal of this second phase is to try to use a bit of levity to extract the lessons learned.


In the third phase, you share it. If you are at the same company, it would be good to share it with the HR business partner supporting your business unit and any "friendlies" around you…a work colleague, a mentor, a former boss…anyone you don’t mind opening the kimono with.

The woman in my group shared it with her HR business partner and also with her new boss during a self-review as a reflection on the first part of the year. Her HR Business Partner complimented her on her insights and said he had “never seen someone turn this kind of situation around so fast and with such grace.”

In the fourth and final phase, you build in support for your next At-Bat. Behavior change is rarely easy and without some kind of support system it is almost impossible. You need people around you who can be role models, who can call you out when they see you slipping back into old patterns, and who will check-in with you and hold you accountable for making the desired changes.

In this case, one element she built into her go forward plan was to find technical people who were willing to help her learn the new technology area she was working in and she set up a standing meeting with them to ask questions and check for holes in her understanding. Her new project got off to a good start and career-wise she is on solid footing again.

I certainly hope you never get hit in the mouth...literally or metaphorically. But by making sure your plans include what failure looks like, what you will do should it happen, and having some tools to process the setback, you will bounce back much more quickly.

Please keep the conversation going...what have you done to get back on your feet?

More posts

Get In Touch

Add your email below and we'll reach out as soon as possible. We look forward to working together!
Thank you for your inquiry - we'll be in touch shortly!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.