How to keep your personal brand after working at a failed company

By Scot Herrick | Job Performance

Apr 15

There was this little company I worked for in my career: WaMu. Washington Mutual is back in the news because, after becoming the largest bank failure in history, it is being investigated by Congress and the Justice Department for fraud in its mortgage lending operations. Not only was management not smart enough to understand what was happening, but management wasn’t able to stop the bad stuff from happening either.

No worse than Enron, of course. And worthy of bashing. But what of the good and honest employees–the vast majority–that worked there? I know countless employees at WaMu who worked very hard to turn the company into something much better than when it started. Indeed, from when I started to when I was laid off, there were huge improvements in operations, technology, processes and services for the customer.

It was just that pesky mortgage securitization thing going on with sub-prime and option arm loans that really took the company and did it in.

Company failures are your personal brand failures–unless you change the perception

The problem is this: all of those good, hard working employees who had nothing to do with the bank failure took a hit to their perceived ability to do their job. It hit their personal brand of accomplishment. It made them far less attractive to hire. Not necessarily because a hiring manager thought the person committed fraud and helped bring the company down. It was just that they worked for Washington Mutual. You know…a failure.

The failure of WaMu comes up in every interview. Some of it because the hiring manager wants to know about your work in the failed company. But also because they want to know beyond every doubt that you are not also a failure and hiring you would lead to their failure.

You have to work extra hard to overcome this perception in your resume, your phone interview and your personal interviews for jobs. So how do you keep your personal brand after working at a company that failed?

You leave the company before the implosion takes place

The very best thing you can do is leave before the catastrophe occurs. Just like evacuating before the hurricane, leaving disassociates you from the impending doom of failure that will touch your personal brand. When you actually leave, rather than saying all those bad things happened before you got there, you have a case that you not only did well, but you thought the company was caving and you decided to leave. Not wait around while the world blew up all around you.

This makes it easy to throw off the failings of the many by being part of the smarter few.

You distance yourself from the failure

Home loans caused the demise of WaMu just like trading electricity futures took down Enron. Or derivatives took down Lehman. Yet, the banking division of WaMu was strong, growing and solid. If you worked there, in banking rather than mortgages, you can easily distance yourself from the embarrassment of the drunk uncle who just can’t seem to contain himself at the party.

You show your results to re-establish your personal brand

If you are the President of the division that caused the company failure, you don’t have much of a defense. You will get pounded on no matter what.

Even if you fail, you can walk away with $25 million to help tide you over to your next gig.

But most of us are not the president of a division or a CEO. We are not the employees who embraced the excess. So we must, more so than any other candidate for the potential job, show our results. We must have them on our resume, talk about them in the phone interview, and tout our interview stories around the successes we brought to help the company that was, in the end, not worth helping.

Most people don’t really talk to their results well because they are difficult to quantify or they don’t know how to do it. If you are coming from a failed company, you will have to know how to show your results.

Failure is the elephant in the room

Make no mistake about this: if you came from a company that was doing poorly or went bankrupt, failure is in the room with you during the interview. You need to be ready to face it, knock it down and show your worth in your approach to your job search.

Don’t let the taint of a failed company taint your personal brand.

Photo by dmytrok

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About the Author

Scot Herrick is the author of “I’ve Landed My Dream Job–Now What???” and owner of Cube Rules, LLC. Scot has a long history of management and individual contribution in multiple Fortune 100 corporations.