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‘I took a mulligan’: How execs course-correct after making a career mistake

Three weeks after starting a new job in marketing for Condé Nast, Jane Ashen Turkewitz walked into her boss’s office and quit.

She wasn’t entirely convinced she’d made the right decision when she accepted the offer, and after just a handful of days on the job, she quickly realized she tushould have trusted her gut. The role she’d walked into wasn’t what she was led to believe it would be, and despite an attractive salary and title, she was miserable.

Rather than stick it out and “put in a year” for the sake of her resume, Turkewitz decided instead that the best course of action was to accept she’d made a mistake and to move on.

“I took a mulligan,” she says.

Anyone who plays amateur golf is familiar with the concept of the “mulligan.” On the course, it’s an opportunity to retake a shot without penalty, typically following a regrettable decision, a lapse of concentration, a moment of ambition exceeding ability or — as is most often the case — a combination of the three.

In their work lives, as on the golf course, nobody gets it right all the time. Not every career decision pans out the way people expect, not every role they take is going to be a good fit and not every company is going to live up to their expectations.

“It happens at some point to most people. It’s extraordinarily common,” says Turkewitz, who now works as an executive search consultant for digital media and technology companies at Hi-Touch Executive Search.

What’s more, there’s less of a stigma now than there once was around trying new things or making bolder career leaps that don’t quite work out. In an age when athletes, actors and reality TV stars can become venture capitalists, DTC moguls and Presidents, going out on a limb and trying something new perhaps isn’t frowned upon the way it once was.

There’s a variety of reasons people may need to course-correct in their professional lives, of course. No two situations are alike and everyone’s circumstances, goals and expectations vary. For some, like Turkewitz, it’s a case of simply accepting the wrong role. For others, it’s having success in one area and overestimating their ability to apply it to a new one.

Meanwhile, situational factors are constantly changing, too. A company might reorganize and change roles and responsibilities shortly after a new hire; a startup might pivot in an entirely new direction because of market forces outside of their control, or new management might come into a company with new views on personnel.

Randall Rothenberg — who spent less than two months as Time Inc.’s chief digital officer in 2011 before bouncing back to resume his role leading the Interactive Advertising Bureau — puts that situation largely down to unusual circumstances. Just days after joining the company, his then-boss and Time Inc. chief executive, Jack Griffin, was abruptly ousted, which subsequently spelled the end of Rothenberg’s short tenure, too.

“I loved it, I loved the people, I loved the guy who hired me; he got fired,” Rothenberg says of his experience at Time. He was subsequently offered his chief executive role at the IAB back, which he’s held ever since.

Rothenberg said he doesn’t believe in things working out for the best or for the worst, but said he learned from his Time Inc. experience nonetheless. “I’ve had a great career, and everything was either valuable in its time, or valuable in retrospect – including the failures.”

Expressing a similar sentiment, one senior media executive said his own mulligan experience taught him some valuable lessons about where his passions and strengths really lie. Or, more specifically, where they don’t.

“Responsibility and the money you make are moot if you do not have the passion it takes to wake up every morning and deliver that extra one percent that separates good from great within any industry,” he said.

Despite the positives — and changing attitudes toward short-lived roles — multiple senior executives contacted for this article still declined to talk about their experiences on the record or asked to remain anonymous, which highlights their ongoing sensitivity to the issue. Most would opt to delete roles that didn’t work out from their LinkedIn profiles and pretend it didn’t happen than talk about them publicly.

But rather than attempting to scrub mentions of an ill-advised three-month stint at a blockchain startup from search results, those with mulligans on their records might be better off learning instead of how to better articulate what they gained from those experiences.

“So many people just get up and move around. But if you’ve decided to leave quickly, you have to be able to explain why with confidence and clarity,” Turkewitz said.

But if you do decide to take a mulligan, Turkewitz would advise doing so as quickly as possible rather than attempting to save face by sticking around for a year or two. That’s something that more senior executives are typically more comfortable doing, she said. They can often tell sooner when something isn’t going to work out.

“If you’re not on a path you want to be on, waiting around is just going to take you further down the wrong path,” she said. “It’s all experience. You live and learn.”

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