In the July 16, 2013 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks what to do after getting screwed by a long-time employer:

After ten years, my sales performance at my company started topping the charts. The boss could not understand how I did it, but it was the personal attention I gave my customers. I did all I could to help them be more successful themselves. One day I brought on a big new client and closed a record-breaking deal worth millions. A few days later, my boss fired me. My confidence was shattered. I’ve been working the job postings but I’ve been out of work for months. Where do I go from here?

Nick’s Reply

Unless you did something unethical (or illegal) that you’re not telling me, my suspicion is that you got fired because your employer doesn’t want to pay the kinds of sales commissions you are earning. That’s silly — everyone’s making money and the customer is happy. But I’ve never been able to understand a company’s resentment against successful sales people.

screwedThis happened once to me. I took a sales management job under a very aggressive commission plan. The head of sales designed it, and I accepted it. It was so aggressive that there was no salary or draw. It turns out they never thought I’d make the plan work for me. I was making so much money (for them and for me) that they cancelled the plan. I quit.

If this is your story, I don’t know why it would shatter your confidence. I’d talk with a lawyer to determine what (if anything) you’re owed for closing the deal.

It’s not uncommon for sales companies to fire a top sales rep and turn big accounts over to junior salespeople who are paid far smaller commissions.

Here you’ve been in this particular business for ten years, and you’re desperately using job postings to find a job! Cut it out! You’re wasting your time. Use the ten years of excellent contacts you’ve got! (Please don’t say, “I don’t know anybody,” because you do!)

Sit down and make a list of your best customers — companies and specific people you’ve worked with at big companies and small ones. Review the quality of your relationships. Think also about what companies they do business with — their customers, vendors, consultants and other professionals. Make a list. (If you’re reading this and you don’t work in sales and you don’t have customers, then some of the other people you encounter through your work are potential employers and potential sources of referrals to a new job. Where do you think good headhunters find new clients and great candidates?)

Note: If you have Non-Compete or Non-Disclosure Agreements (NCA or NDA), make sure you don’t violate them. Talk with a lawyer. (Ouch. That’s twice I’ve recommended lawyers in one column! You don’t think lawyers can help? Read Employment Contracts: Everyone needs promise protection.) I think it’s worth at least an initial consultation to understand your position before you take action.

Your former customers are people who know you well and respect you. These are the kinds of references you can use. Call them. Don’t ask them for a job. Tell them you’re going to work only for a top-notch company — big or small — and you would value their advice. What companies do they respect? Which ones would they recommend to you?

What do you do when a friend refers you to a company? That’s when the fun starts — and that’s when you must get to work! Fearless Job Hunting Book 5: Get The Right Employer’s Full Attention delivers the obstacle-busting answers you need:

  • Don’t walk blind on the job hunt
  • How to make up for lack of required experience
  • Is this a Mickey Mouse operation?
  • Age discrimination or age anxiety?
  • How to deal with an undeserved nasty reference
  • Scuttlebutt: Get the truth about private companies
  • And more!

Overcome the daunting obstacles that stop other job hunters dead in their tracks!

You may find yourself referred to a competitor of your last employer. Or there may be a department in one of your old customer companies that’s dying to hire you. Or an old customer may have a customer who needs you.

Why waste time with the unknown? That’s what the job postings will get you. Focus on the people who already know you, and with whom you have good relationships and something in common.

The job market is not just job postings and want ads. It’s people. Focus on the ones who care about you because you have treated them well. They will help you if you let them.

Has anyone used this approach, whether in sales or any other line of work? I think it’s the best “insider” method for meeting your next boss!

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  1. Another column with spot on advice.

    There’s a friend of mine, Darcy Rezac, who wrote a book called “Work the Pond” about how to Network. One of the things he stresses is that positive networking uses the strength of weak ties…which is exactly the point of this blog post.

    The successful new-to-the-market salesperson has close relationships with his customers, and while these are important, it is the WEAKER ties that his customers have with other companies – who may be competitors of his most recent employer, other companies or individuals – that is where the true magic happens.

    What better endorsement can you get than from a customer who contacts his vendor/supplier and says to them:

    “This guy is amazing! He helped us be successful and always followed up and took care of us…better than anyone else at his company. We want to follow him, ’cause we aren’t happy with the new junior sales account managers that his company has put on our account – that he helped build, by the way, through his tenacity, charm and strength of character. You should really give him a call and ask him if he’ll consider joining your team.”


    These are actions that the new-to-market salesperson can take on his OWN behalf. If a headhunter gets involved, part of our job is to do some due diligence on what happened. Why was he fired? If there is any merit to the dismissal?

    While there are a lot of unethical companies out there that treat their employees in an unprofessional manner, there are also a lot of people that may deserve to be fired for cause.

    My two yen.

  2. Something similar happened to a friend of mine two or three years ago. After he closed a multimillion dollar deal that took him two years to complete, his company retroactively assigned him to a different division. He lost out on a six-figure commission.

    No surprise, he quit shortly thereafter. He also formed his own company to develop a product that competes directly with that of his previous employer. He’s doing quite well now.

  3. @Eric Cole: Your comments about “weak ties” is dead on. I first encountered the idea in Duncan Watts’ excellent “Six Degrees: The science of a connected age.” Watts is a mathematician who studies networks of all kinds, and his findings are that weak ties can pay off best. More about Six Degrees here:

  4. Agree with Eric, it’s a really nice point – it’s not so much about “can you get me a job” as it is “can you get me to someone who would leverage/appreciate my skill set & attitude”

    The other thing I think is to try (as much as possible) to work for / be involved with people who care about what’s good for everyone. I like David Logan’s Ted Talk on tribal leadership / levels in that respect

  5. Excellent post. Finding a job isn’t what you know (never has been) but who knows you. The letter writer’s question and Nick’s answer illustrate why everyone, including those who are bringing in billion dollar sales and saving the company trillions of dollars, should have network both inside and outside. That “weak” tie might just be your hair stylist, who has a client who just told him about a vacancy because someone is leaving or because his company is growing. Might be your doctor or your dentist. If you’re a college graduate and you haven’t already done so, join your school’s alumni association. If you’ve graduated from several schools (i.e., you went to a community college, then transferred, or you went on for a master’s or doctoral degree), join the alumni associations at all of them. Alumni often pass on tips and intel about jobs and companies to fellow alumni. If you’re in a profession (doctor, lawyer, engineer, etc.), join your local professional association/organization. You’ll expand your network, maybe learn whose good to work for and who isn’t, and then when you’re in a better place/position, pay it forward and help out the next person.
    @Joe: your point is well taken. It makes a huge difference if you work for and with decent people who can look beyond me me me me and to hell with everyone else. I’ve been in both places, and I’ll take working with decent people hands-down.