Have you ever felt exhilarated at the prospect of being advanced to a big internal job — only to be crushed when you’re not the chosen one? When I led succession planning for Microsoft, and in coaching executives since, I’ve noticed predictable emotional aftermath of also-ran contenders and helped clients implement recovery tactics when the dream job is just out of reach.
Consider Tolgar, a general manager at a large company who joined the organization straight out of college and rapidly rose to an executive position. Eighteen months after his most recent promotion, Tolgar was surprised when his manager told him she was leaving the company and had recommended him as one of the candidates to replace her.
He was flattered, although initially unsure if he was ready for such a big step up. He felt honored to even be considered and told me he would understand if a more senior candidate became his new boss.
However, after we had a couple of discussions, he decided to go for it. He dusted off his resume, crafted his interview pitch, and thought about his own succession plan should he get the job. But after being selected as one of three finalists, Tolgar wasn’t offered the position. Even though he’d started the process with low expectations, he ultimately became emotionally invested and was deeply disappointed when a more experienced, external hire superseded him.
This story is not uncommon among internal candidates who are strong performers but don’t get hired for a coveted position. They are deflated, feel less valued, wonder about the optics of having tried for a position but failed to secure it, and often lack enthusiasm about returning to their current jobs. They may resolve to quit their position and even leave the company altogether.
Three weeks after being passed over, Tolgar was ready to move past his strong early emotions and assess the path ahead. Here are the alternatives he and I worked through. Depending on your circumstance, you too can make any of these choices. Answer these questions to help you determine your next steps.
What more can I learn in this job and/or from my new manager?
If you still feel there’s more to learn, reinvest in your role. During the interview process, you may have mentally graduated from your present position. Tolgar realized he still had much to learn about managing a global business, something his new manager was experienced in.
What am I dissatisfied with or what else do I want in this role?
After answering this question, actively work on creating the conditions you desire. As leadership expert Barry Oshry says, “Come in early as a partner versus late as a judge.” You might want additional headcount to succeed on a key priority and create a business case for it. Or you might desire structural changes that prove unrealistic, precipitating a need to change jobs.
What’s a realistic time frame for things to change?
Give yourself a specific time limit, say three months, to be in an interim mode. You might find searching for your next viable alternative more engaging than your work responsibilities, but it can pay off to wait and see. Tolga set aside a year to partner with his new boss and continue to develop his own team and business. Ten months in, Tolgar loves his job again and has received additional responsibilities to expand his scope of work.
What am I most passionate about right now? What’s the unique contribution I can make?
No matter your answer, this is a great time to investigate a different role in the same organization that allows you to shed tasks that deplete you and brings you closer to what excites you. When another client’s manager left the organization, my client served as interim department head. The newly hired, permanent head brought similar expertise but on a larger scale. Instead of worrying about navigating the functional skills’ boundaries with her boss, my client chose a more technical role, working for the same manager. She returned to her roots and was excited to innovate while her new boss had more space to structure the management side.
Do I still think I have much to learn and give at this level? Am I more excited about doing this job in another part of the company?
Before you answer these two questions, seek feedback from others about why weren’t hired. If you answer yes to both questions, explore lateral options. If your answer reveals that it’s not exciting to return to your current role or too difficult to work for the new manager, consider a similar position in a different group. If you’re in a large enough organization and have a strong track record, it’s time to revitalize your internal network.
What other more senior job functions will offer the right blend to leverage my experience and grow my repertoire?
After an enticing glimpse of doing more, a role in your present scope might feel too tight. Consider applying for another senior position. For example, you might move from a CTO to a CIO role. Both require technical skills but as CIO there are more opportunities to deal directly with internal customer issues. While many CIOs receive the dreaded midnight call from their CEO about malfunctioning devices, it’s also a great way to influence product design through newfound gains in customer empathy — and round out your resume.
Have I hit a non-negotiable in my current situation? Are external hires consistently getting better deals than me?
If you’ve answered yes to either of these questions, leave the company. Losing out on a coveted new role can be clarifying. It may illuminate that you’ve been stuck in the status quo for too long or become passive about your career trajectory. While this choice needs serious deliberation if this isn’t the first time you’ve been passed over for an exciting job and you believe you’re not being valued as highly as external candidates, perhaps it’s time for you to become an outside hire elsewhere.
No matter how tantalizing the prospect of being considered for a juicy role, it doesn’t always work out. It’s helpful to know that it’s normal to have a tough time initially on the rebound. Give yourself the space to recover and then evaluate your next steps through a set of questions very different than those asked of you during the interview process.