At year-end once more my blog with the most attention during 2016, the one about failure from June 14: I am currently preoccupied with the topic of failure – especially since the tragic death of Martin Senn. In Switzerland, there is a stigma surrounding failure. If a Swiss top manager experiences a severe setback in his or her career, it is rare for that person to achieve a professional comeback. I can only think of two examples. How about you?
The Chairmen and CEOs of companies are highly paid – partly because they expose themselves to a significant risk: that of public failure. No one wants to be fired – but it is even worse if the entire world knows that you have failed. In Switzerland, there are virtually no examples of such individuals having succeeded in finding another top job once they have failed. I can only think of two people who have achieved this: Mathis Cabiallavetta and Philipp Hildebrand.
Mathis Cabiallavetta had to step down as Chairman of UBS in October 1998 after the bank suffered a massive loss relating to the US hedge fund LTCM. By May 1999, he had already taken over the helm of the well-known US insurance broker Marsh & McLennan. This was followed by his election to the Boards of Directors of the US tobacco firm Philipp Morris and the US asset manager BlackRock. Almost a decade after his less than glorious departure from UBS, Mathis Cabiallavetta finally returned to Switzerland and was elected to the Board of Directors of Swiss Re, of which he later served as Vice-Chairman. He also became a member of the Board of Directors of the Swiss-American Chamber of Commerce.
The second example of a brilliant comeback is that of Philipp Hildebrand. In January 2012, he stepped down as Chairman of the Swiss National Bank due to potentially dubious forex trades executed by his then wife. He was later cleared of any misconduct. What did Hildebrand do? In October 2012, he joined the world’s largest asset manager BlackRock and was appointed Vice Chairman with responsibility for institutional investors in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia as well as the Pacific region. In recent months, he has also made a number of prominent appearances in Switzerland again – including at this year’s WEF.
What is interesting is the similarity between these two cases: Both men found top jobs at American companies, both were elected to the Board of Directors of BlackRock, and both waited a number of years before venturing back into the spotlight in Switzerland. It is no wonder that they both decided to pursue their careers at firms in the US – where failure is not a taboo subject but giving up is. The best example of this principle is the founder of BlackRock himself: Larry Fink. During his time at the investment bank First Boston, he incurred massive losses as a result of failed speculation. In 1998, he founded BlackRock, which today manages USD 4.7 trillion of assets – more than Credit Suisse and UBS combined – and does so with a workforce of ‘only’ 13,000. Larry Fink has also been touted as a possible candidate for the post of US Treasury Secretary if Hilary Clinton is elected US President. This would signal an unparalleled comeback.
These stories of people achieving success after experiencing failure are common in the US. Around 150 years ago, there was a man in America who lost his first job and his first election campaign at the age of 23. When he was 26 years old, he had to bury the woman he loved. Two of his sons died in childhood. Between the ages of 29 and 46 he lost six further important election campaigns. But at the age of 52, he was elected President of the United Stated. I am referring here to Abraham Lincoln.
Did you know that at the age of 29, Steve Jobs was fired by Apple – the company that he founded – and subsequently suffered a bout of depression but later returned and was celebrated as an icon of success? Walt Disney was turned down 302 times before someone finally agreed to provide financing for Disneyland. And Howard Schultz contacted 245 banks before securing a loan for his company Starbucks.
US: never give up
It is a widely-held belief in the US that no matter how many setbacks you experience, you should never give up. No one wants to experience a crisis – but experience shows that crises not only take a lot out of us but also promote our emotional development. They help us to advance. Failure is not the opposite of success – it is part of it. Young children are a prime example – they learn to walk by falling over time and again. Winston Churchill once said: “Success is about going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.” It is worth remembering his words of wisdom!
In Switzerland, we have not yet developed this healthy attitude to failure. Do you know of any top managers other than Mathis Cabiallavetta and Philipp Hildebrand who have been able to secure another top job? If so, please write to me at email@example.com or post a comment on my blog on my LinkedIn profile. Events called ‘FuckupNights’ that have been held in various countries for a number of years – and made their debut in St. Gallen last summer – represent a small beginning. At these events, failed entrepreneurs explain what went wrong with their businesses and what they have learned from this experience. Based on the idea that you learn from your mistakes, I wish you every success in turning your failures into successes!
© Claudia Kraaz