“Reunions are for happy people,” Mariani Kallis said to her friend Whitney on the phone. “I’m not going.”
“Come on, it won’t be the same without you,” Whitney pleaded. “Besides, no one is happy right now. Everyone’s life is a mess.”
“I’m pretty sure none of our other classmates was asked to step down from their CEO job last month,” Mariani said wryly.
Whitney laughed. The two had been close friends since they met their first year at Columbia Business School. They texted pretty much every day, but Whitney had called to make a case for why her friend should fly up to New York City from Atlanta, where she lived with her husband and teenage daughter, to attend their 25th reunion.
Mariani wasn’t in the mood to be convinced. She dreaded having to explain her unceremonious exit from what she thought was her dream job: CEO of Acid Fitness. When she’d been offered the chance to lead a chain of gyms that focused on high intensity interval training and the mental health benefits of exercise, she’d jumped at the opportunity.
Since graduating from business school, Mariani had held marketing and leadership positions at major sports and fitness companies and had gained a reputation for taking on big challenges and succeeding. The top job at Acid Fitness seemed like the natural next step.
But two years into her tenure, the pandemic hit.1 The firm, already on shaky fiscal ground, was forced into bankruptcy, and the board asked Mariani to step down.2 She was devastated. The board chair had called on a Monday morning; in shock, she’d agreed, and by that afternoon he’d sent out a companywide email announcing her resignation. The story was picked up by the press the next day. And that was it. She hadn’t even had a chance to say goodbye to her team.
“You can’t sit back and lick your wounds forever,” Whitney said now. “I know it’s only been a month, but you already have four exciting options on the table.”
Mariani was accustomed to moving fast when it came to career decisions. Early on, as an émigré from Greece to the United States, she’d had to maintain employment to stay in the country. Now, thanks to her American husband, she had U.S. citizenship, but she was her family’s breadwinner and couldn’t be out of a job for an extended period.3
“It’s not just about not wanting to show my face,” she said. “I can’t spare the time right now. I need to figure out what’s next as soon as possible.”
“OK, I won’t pester you. Just know that you’ll be missed! What should I say when people ask about you?” The two women had been inseparable during business school, so Whitney would surely have to field questions.
“Just tell them I’m busy setting the stage for my future success.”
A Fresh Start?
“I imagine you’re still processing it all,” said Peter Kim in his usual empathetic way. Peter had been Mariani’s boss at her first job. They’d become friends, and although she’d left after two years, he had supported her ever since and was her go-to career adviser.
They’d scheduled a Zoom call so that she could get Peter’s perspective on what to do next. She outlined the four roles she was considering, all of which were based in Atlanta or could be done remotely—a key consideration since her family wasn’t ready to relocate. The first option was to take a senior marketing position at a sports company. She’d already had some initial interviews with Nike and Equinox, and the recruiter seemed optimistic that an offer from one or both was imminent.
“I see why those positions are appealing,” said Peter. “You know the industry. The work would be similar to what you did at Reebok, right?”
“Yes, I’d just be doing it with the stench of failure on me. Everyone in this industry knows what happened at Acid,” she said.
Peter rolled his eyes. “I’m going to ignore that. Go on.”
Her second option was to accept an executive director role at a foundation offering grants to nonprofits that encouraged girls to get involved in sports.
“High on passion, low on income, I’m guessing,” Peter commented. His husband held a senior role at a foundation, so he knew that world well.
“Exactly,” Mariani replied. “I’m not sure I can swing that one financially, but it’s still on the table. The third option is the opposite. High reward, low passion. Remember Theo?” She was referring to their former colleague who’d left the company to join a venture capital firm.
“Is he trying to convince you to go over to the dark side?” Peter asked, and they both laughed.
“He actually made it sound appealing,” Mariani said. “I’d be an operating partner, advising senior execs at portfolio companies. It’s a lot less stressful than being CEO. I could get my feet back under me and prove that I know how to run a business.”4
“From behind the scenes? That’s not really your style,” Peter said, pointing at the screen. She glanced down at her T-shirt, which read “No Guts, No Glory.”
“True. There is one more possibility: CEO of a small firm here in Atlanta that sells chips and other snack foods.” She explained that she was far along in the process—the recruiter had said she should expect an offer next week—and she had liked what she’d seen so far.
“Do I hear some enthusiasm in your voice?” Peter asked.
“It’s a cool opportunity, and I’d love the chance to show that I can handle the top job this time,” she said. “The big question mark is the industry. My experience is in fitness.5 Could anything be more opposite from that than unhealthy snacks? This might be the real dark side! But maybe it’s time to try something new?”
Peter nodded. “I’m only reflecting back what I’m hearing, but you sound the most excited about that one. You could make a fresh start in a CPG company.”
She wasn’t surprised that he was pushing for this option. He’d stayed at one company his entire career, but he often urged Mariani to take risks with hers.
They talked through the possibilities and agreed that the VC firm and the foundation were not the best fit and should be kept on the back burner for now. Peter gave her another nudge toward the CEO position. “Just because you have a passion for fitness doesn’t mean you can’t have a passion for something else. I worry that anything below that level will feel like a demotion.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of—that if I accept a lesser role, peers in the industry will write me off, thinking I don’t have what it takes to be CEO,” Mariani said. “And maybe I don’t. Acid looked like the right next move on paper, but maybe I was in over my head.”
“You were ready. The company wasn’t,” Peter said.
Mariani knew what he was getting at. She’d had friction with the board from her first week on the job. They’d brought her in to drive a transformation but stood in the way of the changes she’d proposed. And then Covid had sparked closures and revenue losses that Acid couldn’t recover from.6 Still, she didn’t want to place blame elsewhere. The company failed on her watch, and she had to own it.
“You know,” Peter said, “careers rarely map nicely on a straight line. They twist and turn. This is a great chance for you to take a break and rethink your journey.”
Follow Your Passion
Mariani was leaning against her car outside her gym, still sweating from her spin class and scrolling through emails from recruiters and business school classmates (“We missed you last weekend!”), when her dad’s picture came up on her phone screen.
“Hi Baba,” she answered. George said he was calling for an update on her job search. He’d always been her biggest supporter and followed her career closely. As she reviewed the options, her father listened attentively.
After his daughter finished, George took a deep breath, and said, “Well, it’s obvious, no?”
Mariani smiled to herself. “No, not to me, Baba.”
“Mari, I’m going to guess you’ve probably just finished a workout,” he said. She smiled again. He knew her well. “You have to follow your passion.7 You believe that fitness and wellness improve people’s lives. You can’t leave the industry because of one failure. Zagorakis didn’t leave football to become a tennis player every time he messed up,” he said, referring to the famed Greek soccer player. “He got back out on the field. And that’s what you need to do now. Don’t end your time in that world on a low note. Focus on Nike and Equinox—one of them will offer you a job, don’t tell me they won’t—and take whichever makes the most use of your talents, which are…?” He waited for her to finish the sentence he used in every pep talk.
“Infinite,” she said.
“Exactly. And you will walk into that job with your head held high, and then see what comes next. Learn the right lessons from what happened, and remember that everything that made you successful before is still in you.”
Mariani knew he was right, fatherly pride aside. She thrived on testing herself and doing work she was inspired by. Still, it was a tough decision. The CEO job was in the wrong industry but was higher-ranking and would pay more.8 The other jobs offered development and advancement opportunities but with less responsibility and pay.
“Baba, if my talents are infinite, shouldn’t I be CEO?”
“You will be again. I know it.”
Your Gut Instinct
After hanging up, Mariani went to pick up her daughter, Olivia, from soccer practice. The 15-year-old looked surprised to see her. “Where’s Dad?” she asked as they strolled off the field.
Because of her hectic schedule, it was rare for Mariani to be doing pickup. “I’m giving him a break from driving since I’m on ‘sabbatical,’” Mariani explained.
“Is that what you’re calling it?” Olivia asked with both empathy and an edge in her voice, as only a teenager could do.
“Forced sabbatical,” Mariani conceded. “I’m trying to cram a lot of reflection into a few weeks.”
“As long as I don’t have to switch schools, I don’t care what you do,” Olivia said, digging in her backpack for her phone. When Mariani winced, her daughter’s face softened a bit.
“Want my advice?” she said. It was Mariani’s turn to be surprised, but she quickly nodded. “You and Dad always tell me, ‘Face your fears because if you don’t, they’ll haunt you forever.’ So figure out what you’re afraid of, and walk toward it. You’ll know the right decision in your gut.”
“That’s great advice, Liv,” Mariani said, moved by her insight.
“And make sure we don’t have to move. I’m not starting over at a new high school.” Mariani smiled. Teenage narcissism was fierce.
What she didn’t tell her daughter was that her gut was twisted in knots.
The Experts Respond: What should Mariani’s next career step be?
Sarah Robb O’Hagan is the CEO of EXOS and the author of Extreme You.
Mariani shouldn’t jump at any of the options currently on the table. She cannot allow the failure at Acid Fitness to derail her career. She should hold out for a CEO role in the sports and fitness industry—an opportunity that I’m confident will come along.
Of the choices she has in hand, the jobs in the fitness industry may feel like the best match, but those are high-level marketing roles and would be a step backward. There is a profound difference between being the CEO and heading up a function—no matter how big the division or how big the company. Without full P&L responsibility, Mariani risks being pigeonholed.
However, I’d also discourage her from taking the snack food company CEO position. An impressive title and generous compensation aren’t enough if you don’t have passion for the business. Performing the top job isn’t always a picnic and becomes only harder if you don’t truly believe in the company’s products or services.
This case is loosely based on my own experience four years ago when I stepped down as CEO of Flywheel Sports, after the company went into bankruptcy. In considering my next move, I entertained options similar to those Mariani has in front of her. I knew I could effectively run a company despite my failure at Flywheel, and I wanted to take my time in finding the right role. In fact, falling into “must get a job” mode was what had led me to Flywheel in the first place and to the disappointments that followed.
So I gave myself the mental space to reflect on what I wanted to do differently. I decided to consult for a while, which helped restore my confidence. One of my clients was EXOS. I got to see firsthand how the firm operated and what its values were. When the CEO decided to step aside for personal reasons and an investor asked me to take the role, it was an obvious yes. I knew exactly what I was getting into. I had the support of the board, and I felt comfortable being honest about my strengths and weaknesses.
Mariani should take the time to better understand herself and any organization she might join. Like her, I was tempted to blame myself for Flywheel’s failure, but in hindsight, I realize that the issues had less to do with my skills as a leader than with a problematic dynamic between the board and the management team.
What happened at Acid Fitness wasn’t Mariani’s fault either. She deserves to land another CEO role in the industry she loves with a terrific company. I’d advise her to take on advisory and consulting projects to support her family while she looks for the right opportunity. A client firm might just fall in love with her and make her an offer. Or more headhunters for other great companies will come calling. Her patience will be rewarded.
Lan Phan is the founder and CEO of community of SEVEN.
Mariani should take the CEO role at the snack food company. It’s a great opportunity for her to bring her experience in fitness and wellness to the snack food industry—and ideally transform it. Plus, the job is based in Atlanta, which would mean less disruption and more time with her family.
I was in her shoes at the start of the pandemic. Fortune magazine had hired me into its executive team and given me a multimillion-dollar budget to create an executive membership start-up within the company. I thought it was my dream job. But early on in the pandemic, I and my entire team were laid off.
I started searching for a new role and found a similar opportunity, which seemed like fate. But I also had a sinking feeling that I was attracted to the position because it felt safe. So I took a step back and did some soul-searching. I realized that I’d made all my previous career decisions on the basis of pay, title, and ego. And that had yielded a “dream job” that involved commuting three hours a day, working until 10 or 11 every night, and seeing my daughter only on the weekends because I was so busy.
As I pondered my options, I asked myself what I valued most in my life and came up with four things: my family and friends; my faith; serving others; and freedom. Then, I moved toward a career aligned with those ideals. I ended up launching my own business: an invite-only membership community that brings prominent executives, thought leaders, and changemakers together to tackle and solve business and societal problems.
Mariani needs to do the same kind of reflection before she makes a choice. A first step is to stop caring so much about what other people think. Her story reminded me of the Virginia Woolf line “The eyes of others are our prisons; their thoughts our cages.”
In my view, Mariani is attracted to the positions at Nike and Equinox—reverting to what she knows—because she’s afraid. The brand names are impressive, but both roles would be a continuation of what’s she’s already done and wouldn’t offer her the opportunity to develop as a leader. That’s why I think she should go for the snack food CEO role. Her marketing skills, sales experience, and commitment to helping people become their best selves through health and wellness would be differentiating factors in that category.
She’d need to go in with confidence and a growth mindset. Another quote—this one from health and well-being author Charlie Wardle—comes to mind: “A bird sitting on a tree is never afraid of the branch breaking because its trust is not on the branch but on its own wings.” Mariani needs to have faith in her skill set and believe that she can take a risk and land on her feet. She can always go back to the sports industry if the snack food role doesn’t work out. But if she adds yet another fitness-focused position to her CV, it will get harder to shift to another field. And staying in a CEO role will keep her career on track. If she takes one of the other roles, that could push out her timeline for getting back to the top job by five to even 10 years.
Instead of worrying about failure or prestige, Mariani should be asking herself: What makes my soul come alive? I suspect she’ll find that what motivates and inspires her is less about a particular industry and more about the opportunity to learn, grow, and live out her professional and personal values.
HBR’s fictionalized case studies present problems faced by leaders in real companies and offer solutions from experts. This one is based on the HBS Case Study “Sarah Robb O’Hagan: The Rocky Road of Passion” (case no. 422055-PDF-ENG), by Jon M. Jachimowicz and Francesca Gino.