My Best Mistake: Nearly Getting Fired

Most CEOs get to this job without once having been fired. They are so good at work, or maybe just impressing those who judge their work, that they have no idea how it even feels to be fired.

But I do.

When I was 28, running products for a company I’d co-founded, the CEO called to say that I had a problem with the board, that I probably couldn’t overcome it, that I’d have to leave the company.

And that was it. Every firing happens differently except in this one respect: the person being fired can’t believe how fast it happens.

I asked to meet the board’s chairman, whom I idolized for building a supercomputer, for speaking French, for founding a company, for dressing like James Bond. The meeting was set for the next day.

It was 8 p.m. Sunday, too late to call family back east. I cleaned my room. I called my ex-girlfriend. I realized how few friends I had. I thought about all the obvious mistakes I hadn’t fixed because I would have first had to admit they were mistakes. Someone else would get to fix them now. I couldn’t sleep.

The next day, the chairman explained why I was being fired. I listened to him like I had never listened to anyone in my life. In 45 seconds, he did what almost no one paid to be your manager usually has the guts to do: he explained what was wrong with me as plainly as if I were a dented car.

At the end of it, I said I wouldn’t leave. I promised to change. I cried.

“Glenn,” the chairman said, looking away. “Please.”

Then he said, “We’re going to give you one more chance.” He never said why.

I went back to work. I changed. All the things I imagined my successor doing, I did. The company went public. The CEO and I became good friends. I was able to look on my eight years there as a success, not a failure.

I once read that what makes a tragedy so hard to bear is the feeling that it so easily could have gone the other way. This feeling is also what makes our triumphs so giddy.

You Don’t Have to Have the Job
Since then, I’ve never stopped feeling lucky. It’s important for a CEO to feel lucky. When I was just starting out in my career, I’d heard Jim Barksdale say, “You don’t have to have the job.” I thought then that it meant you could leave whenever you wanted.

But now I realized it also meant you couldn’t just take your job for granted. I’ve sometimes wondered if Bill Gates would still be burning to save Microsoft today if only he had earlier been fired from it, as Steve Jobs was fired from Apple.

Feeling lucky also fills you with love. Most CEOs walk around the office like we own the place, without realizing that the place itself isn’t worth owning: a business’s value comes from the people who walk out the door every night, who have to decide each morning whether to walk back in. One of the simplest things you can do as a leader is honor their choice, and appreciate their work.

Accepting the Gravity of What You’ve Done To Another Person
Nearly being fired changes you in other important ways. To this day, I can’t bear to hear that firing someone is best for the person being fired. That may occasionally turn out to be the case but everyone should be clear that the person is being fired only because it’s best for the company.

She is the one who will have to go home and explain to her family what happened. She will remember that day for the rest of her life, and may never completely come to terms with it.

So my role at Redfin isn’t to meddle with whether a manager should fire someone, only with how it is to be done. The first sign of civilization among primitive societies was how we buried our dead; by the same token, one measure of a company’s culture is how it handles those who have to go.

Redfin hasn’t always been as humane as we should. Firings are botched because no one on either side has much experience with it, and everyone gets erratic. But we try.

Demolishing the Fortress
The most profound impact of my own experience with being fired came from what I said to my old chairman to save my skin: “I can change.” Even now, more than ten years on, at a different company, I’m still changing.

Most people spend nearly all their energy trying not to change. This is what the philosopher William James meant when he wrote the mind’s main function was to be a fortress for protecting your ego from reality. When the mind has to accommodate a new fact, James argued, it doesn’t settle on the change to its model of reality that is most likely to reflect reality. It protects the fortress, calculating the smallest possible modification to its bulwarks that can account for the new fact.

Nearly being fired demolishes your fortress. Instead of being invested in the way you’ve been and what you’ve done, you become invested in whom you’ll be.

This shift is the best possible thing that can happen to you. Have you ever noticed that the happiest people on the planet are born-again converts to a religion? It isn’t the religion by itself that makes them happy, otherwise all religious people would be happy.

It’s the shift from loving yourself to loving your ability to change yourself. When I left my meeting with the chairman I finally knew how bad of an executive I was. But I told him that, more than any other executive in his portfolio of companies, I was the one most committed to getting better. I told everyone around me I was trying to get better, so everyone would help.

Sometimes nothing helps. I lie on the bed at the end of a bad day and tell my wife I am tired of myself, because I can never seem to change. She asks me if I think I will get any better in ten years. Face down, I shake my head. Then she asks me if I was much worse ten years ago. We both know I was horrendous back then. I sit up. I see what she means.

The greatest kindness my wife has shown me is to think of me as a work in progress, an unfinished symphony. Professionally, my symphony is to be the world’s best CEO. At my current rate of improvement, that will happen when I’m 94. But I’m trying to move that up.

Glenn Kelman is the CEO of Redfin, a technology-powered real estate brokerage. Follow him on Twitter @glennkelman.