Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary, was a star. He earned the highest ratings of any press secretary in modern history. He was parodied on Saturday Night Live. He became, in a way, a cultural touchpoint. He defended his employers with unceasing loyalty.
And still, his boss didn’t like him and was looking for his replacement for months.
In an announcement surprising to many, the White House announced that former hedge fund manager Anthony Scaramucci would be its communications director, filling a post that was being occupied on an interim basis by Spicer.
Spicer unsuccessfully “vehemently opposed” Scaramucci’s appointment. Then he quit his job.
While the announcement was greeted with surprise by many, those attentive to corporate dynamics could have predicted that Spicer’s influence had been dwindling to levels dangerous to his career. During the past few months, a series of signs and omens showed that Spicer was becoming less relevant, less visible and more in danger of getting pushed out.
It’s a fear that many corporate executives have. Spicer’s situation is a strong cautionary tale to any professional who is caught up in palace intrigue at their company.
Here are signposts from Spicer’s experience that apply to almost anyone who has felt they’re being pushed out. One caveat: a little paranoia is a useful competitive advantage, but too much makes you less effective. Keep your head straight and don’t jump to conclusions; you’ll need multiple signals to know where you stand.
There’s no more pressure on you to deliver
Let’s be clear about one thing: pressure to deliver results can be intense, but as long as it exists it means you’re still in the game.
Once pressure suddenly lifts, it means your bosses have decided you’re not crucial to their strategy. You may sleep easier, or sleep more, but your future growth has ended.
Instead, once the pressure lifts it means that the time your bosses spent exerting pressure on you is now likely being spent strategizing your exit with minimum pain.
In Spicer’s case, he took a step back from the cameras in May—giving the crucial daily press briefings he had run to Sarah Huckabee Sanders. That made him less relevant to the White House’s strategy of dealing with the press, which was central to its communications. The temporary move upstairs might have allowed Spicer to have less stressful days but, since the results didn’t change, and relations with the press only deteriorated, it showed he wasn’t delivering.
Your boss publicly criticizes you and doesn’t care who knows it
It’s bad enough if the boss embarrasses you in front of your peers like these bosses did. It’s a sign that your stock is low and your position in the hierarchy is past saving. (And honestly—do you want to work for someone who ignores or humiliates you in front of others? There are other ways to earn a paycheck.)
In Spicer’s case, it was even worse: multiple news articles were written about how displeased his boss was with him. If you’ve become the topic of gossip and potential leaks from your company, it means someone is really mad at you and probably won’t rest until you’re out.
Even if the hostility ceases for a little while, don’t be fooled: those articles will eventually be the end of you. Few companies want to stew in public controversy, which can damage both morale and the company’s stock price. Notable example: Tension with his bosses on the board of directors even ended Travis Kalanick’s tenure at Uber, and he founded the company.
You think your high profile will save you
Spicer earned himself a surprisingly high profile for someone in his position, which is usually one of support to the president. His press conferences received high ratings and Saturday Night Live had Melissa McCarthy parody him in such a way that his fame only grew. None of this, however, provided or could create protection from the judgment of his results. Similarly, when the tide turns against you, it doesn’t matter how prominent you are.
(Some comfort: your prominence will get you another powerful job relatively easily. People are already guessing that Spicer is on his way to a high-priced commentator position)
You get kicked upstairs
There’s a big difference between getting promoted and getting kicked upstairs, and savvy people recognize it.
Getting promoted happens with a lot of fanfare, usually, and encouragement from your bosses as well as a new mandate and strategy.
Getting kicked upstairs usually happens more quietly, with less celebration, and it puts you in a position where you have a big title but not as much actual influence on day-to-day operations. Getting kicked upstairs can happen for several reasons: to make room for young up-and-comers, or to take you out of a position where you’re not doing well into one that allows you (and your company) to save face.
The general rule: if you have line responsibility and direct reports and a budget, you’re still in good shape. If you get moved into a more vague position with no real job description, lots of hand-waving and no big strategy behind it, it’s time to wonder if you’re going to be effective—and it may be time to move on.
Spicer, when he stopped being press secretary and took over the communications director position, showed the hallmarks of being kicked (or kicking himself) upstairs. His move was not reported as one towards greater responsibility, but instead as stanching a wound left by the sudden departure of the person previously in the role.
There was also no discussion of the change, or any big pivot in strategy to along with it. To most people, it appeared as if Spicer just ghosted.
It may seem obvious, but if you’re getting “disappeared” and everyone is wondering where you went, that’s a warning sign that your influence is dwindling.
That’s fine if you don’t need influence, but if you’re an ambitious person who wants to actually change things, you’re going to need influence and your boss’s ear. When you’ve been kicked upstairs, then you’ve lost both those things—and don’t expect to get them back. It’s time to move on.
You don’t get invited to important meetings
Most of us don’t want to be in a lot of meetings, but when the opportunity comes for a big one to really show what we’re made of, we want a seat at the table.
In one of the most brutal personal insults we can remember, Spicer, a devoted Catholic, was pointedly excluded from a White House meeting with the Pope. The writing was on the wall right there: if your boss knows you want to be in the room where it happens, and instead you’re cooling your heels at your cubicle, your influence is all but gone.
Your boss or other executives start avoiding you
If your boss suddenly stops making eye contact, going out of his or her way to avoid you, or otherwise treating you like anything less than a living, breathing human being—well, time is running out. We have no way of knowing if the president started avoiding Spicer before their dustup, of course. But a rift between the two was widely reported, which is never a good sign.
In any case, whether you’re Sean Spicer or anyone else, it pays to truly pay attention to your bosses: are they greeting you like a valuable employee or dissolving into corners whenever you show up?
Learn to recognize the body language of avoidance and stay attuned to dramatic changes in an executive’s manner towards you. It’s invaluable in knowing where you stand.
An example: just before layoffs at a company I once worked for, an executive walked into the bathroom where several employees were—and, seeing them, backed out in a hurry. In retrospect, it was clear the executive didn’t want to reveal anything or couldn’t face people who would be gone within the week.
Not all body language will be that obvious, but it pays to keep your eyes and ears open to changes in office behavior. While most of the time people are just wrapped up in their own dramas and concerns, sudden changes, sustained over time, could indicate that something big is changing—and it might be your job.
You’ve offered to resign or joked about quitting
This may be completely obvious, but if things have gotten so bad that you’ve offered to resign, your managers probably see you as a dead man walking.
(This wasn’t the case with Spicer, but it was with one of his fellows in the Administration.)
Here’s why. One strike: you were involved in something embarrassing enough that only resignation could potentially solve it. Two strikes: if you’ve offered to resign, then it’s clear you’re the person ultimately responsible, so your ability to do your job is in question. Three strikes: the fact that the word “resignation” has been uttered by anyone, anywhere, about your situation is absolute corporate death. It’s nearly impossible to rebound from those strikes.
Even if they keep you on, there are only two modes of existence that most companies recognize: people who are active, contributing employees and people who are on their way out.
Any discussion—even a whispered word, or an angry moment—about quitting, resignation, stepping down or away, or anything similar, seals your fate the minute the word escapes your lips.
You may get to a point where you stay and you collect a paycheck, but there’s no way anyone will invest any more responsibility in you, lest you make good on your threat and walk out the door. The minute you say the word “resign,” your managers have pictured the office without you and the image never leaves their heads.
Note: an easy backfire is the technique of threatening to quit in order to force your bosses to say how valuable you are. Maybe you are—for now. But they’ve already started shopping for your replacement, most likely. So when you offer to resign, don’t hang around. Sign the papers and get out, because your future at that company is over.
Once you learn to watch for these signs, you’ll be in a greater place of power in your career—even if you’re losing influence at your company—because you’ll be able to plan ahead and choose your next steps. It’s valuable to remember, as well, that departure from one company doesn’t mean the end of your career; it’s just a stepping stone to the next big challenge.
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