Why execs take ‘no-win’ jobs

Alexis Kayser (Email) – Monday, October 9th, 2023

Some jobs seem so impossible, they appear to be suicide missions. But executives have their reasons for taking them, according to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal.

These “no-win jobs,” as Journal columnist Callum Borchers puts it, may seem hopeless. But to some executives, the expectation is low enough that the role isn’t daunting: It’s a “shot to pull off something magical.”

The Journal points to Rep. Kevin McCarthy — the U.S. representative from California who was voted out as speaker of the House this week after fighting hard for the role in January — and Alan Fishman, who took the helm of Washington Mutual 17 days before it was seized and sold by federal regulators.

“The private calculus that any individual makes is: What’s the downside?” Jim Citrin, leader of executive-search firm Spencer Stuart’s CEO firm, told the Journal. “If everybody knows the job is really challenging and it doesn’t work out, well, that was the expectation. If it does work, then you’re a hero.”

Of course, pay packages and prestige also play a role. The stakes — and doubts — are often highest at big-name organizations, leading to lofty compensation and plentiful publicity. Even if the tenure is short, it could open doors for an executive’s personal brand, like speaking engagements and book deals, according to executive coach Keith Ferrazzi.

Some highly successful people are “nearly delusional” in their belief that they can achieve any goal, according to the Journal. That unshakeable confidence can propel people past the point where others might give up.

With CEO turnover — including healthcare’s — reaching a record high, someone has to step up to the plate and take the impossible jobs that others left behind. The best practice for a “no-win” job is to lead with tact, even in gloomy conditions, Mr. Ferrazzi told the publication.

“If you swing for the fences, no one is going to hold it against you,” Mr. Ferrazzi said. “You make a bad brand for yourself when you do it with poor values or with poor strategic decisions.”