The Career Shift

The Career Shift

In November of 2000, ultraconservative Missouri Senator John Ashcroft became the first senator ever to lose an election to a dead person. Ashcroft's opponent, Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan, had died tragically in a plane crash just a few weeks before the election. Carnahan's name remained on the ballot, however, and he won by a slim margin. The lieutenant governor appointed Governor Carnahan's wife, Jean, to be U.S. senator.

Democrats gleefully declared that Ashcroft—having now lost to a deceased person—had no political future. Four months later, however, Ashcroft was the attorney general of the United States—the senior law enforcement officer in the country and the senior advisor to the president on the critical issue of judicial nominations. As attorney general, Ashcroft found himself in an even greater position to advance a conservative agenda than he was while a senator. How did Ashcroft bounce back so quickly?

For starters, "He did not get mad at his setback," an adviser of his told me. Ashcroft had legitimate grounds to challenge the results of the Senate election he lost on two bases. First, he had a pretty good argument under Missouri law that a deceased person could not be a "resident" of the state and, therefore, could not run for Senate. Even more interesting, Ashcroft knew that the polls in the heavily Democratic areas of St. Louis had stayed open longer than provided for under the law. Against the advice of many—and very much in contrast to the strategy employed by Vice President Al Gore at the same time—Ashcroft decided not to challenge the results of the election. "It would just look like sour grapes," Ashcroft reportedly said.

Ashcroft, who was not known for having a particularly laid-back demeanor while a senator, displayed remarkable restraint in defeat. His gracious attitude seriously defused the image he had among Democrats as a doctrinaire extremist, and greatly enhanced his stature, even among those who disliked his conservative viewpoints.

Next, Ashcroft did not wallow in self-pity. He didn't get mad and he didn't get sad, a friend of his noted. Rather, he realized that "bad situations create the best opportunities," as manufacturing guru Sam Fox puts it. Ashcroft knew that, having lost a close Senate election and taken that loss gracefully, he was now one of the most high-profile unemployed Republicans in the country—this at a time when the new Republican administration had a lot of jobs to fill. So his supporters launched a grassroots campaign to get him named attorney general, and it worked. Had Ashcroft won the Senate election, the Bush administration might have been reluctant to yank a sitting Republican out of the Senate and into the Cabinet. Had Ashcroft challenged his Senate election results and lost, the Bush administration would have had trouble getting him confirmed because the election challenge would have looked too much like the Gore-Lieberman approach to the presidential election. By losing, accepting the loss, and recognizing the major opportunity that the loss created, Senator Ashcroft became Attorney General Ashcroft.

Making the Most of a Layoff

Stephen, the sixty-one-year-old president of a major manufacturing company, got the word that he either had to retire or lose his job. His company had been bought by a larger company, and the new owners wanted to put their own people in senior management positions. Stephen's staff was outraged. He had performed well in the job and everyone knew it. Stephen was tempted to just pick up and leave.

But Stephen was an invincible executive. He did not storm out. He did not head for Hawaii. Rather, he told the new owners that he wanted to retire from his company in sixty days. He used those sixty days to negotiate a new job with a very large competitor of the new owner. After forty-five days, he announced that he would retire as president of the old company, but that he would become a senior vice president of the larger competitor. The new owners of his old company—who had failed to get a "noncompete agreement" from Stephen or any of his top managers—were outraged, but there was nothing that they could do about the situation.

Less than two years later, Stephen's new company bought his old company. Stephen volunteered to assist in the integration of the two companies. Imagine the looks on the faces of the men who had fired him when Stephen chaired the first integration team meeting. Now Stephen held their fate in his hands.