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How to bow out of a disastrous career move with your reputation intact

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No matter how carefully you manage your career, there’s likely to be a point where you end up making a move that has the potential to damage your reputation – whether that’s accepting the wrong role or failing to excel in a new job after performing well in your previous position.

An extreme example of this is Fidelity’s Anthony Bolton, who stepped down from his position running the China Special Situations Fund this week. Bolton had achieved demigod status in the industry, with a 19.5% annual return between 1979 and 2007 running Fidelity’s UK special situations fund. However, the China fund, which he took over in 2010, fell by 14% over the three years to June 2013. “There’s frustration that it hasn’t been as good as I’d hoped it would have been,” he said during a conference call confirming his retirement.Bolton, it seems, was cutting his losses.

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Lower down the food chain, career mistakes are less public but still need to be explained away. A track record and solid reputation has always been integral for fund managers, but in the current climate it’s doubly important for anyone looking for a new position, said James Dewhirst, director at headhunters Investment Management Partners.

“Institutional investors are more closely scrutinising the long term performance of both the firm and the individual fund manager, as it’s such a competitive environment,” he said. “Even though times have been tough, it’s difficult to justify a sustained period of under-performance.”

This isn’t limited to institutional fund managers. Traders in investment banks have either started often ill-fated hedge funds, or moved across to a sink or swim firm where they’ve failed to emulate performance of their previous positions.

“One trader’s CV had a company they’d stayed in for less than six months that simply said ‘big mistake’, at the bottom of their experience profile,” said Linda Jackson, managing director of outplacement company 10Eighty. “In person, they explained that they were returning to their core level of expertise by going back into banking, and had encountered a culture clash in an otherwise solid track record.”

The benefits of being upfront

Part of the problem people face when ending up in a job they’re clearly neither enjoying nor excelling in, is that they often have to continue working while looking for another position shortly after joining their new firm, said Andrew Pullman, managing director of People Risk Solutions and a long-standing investment banking human resources professional.

“If you’ve been sold a pup, just admit that you screwed up, rather than trying to invent excuses why things went wrong,” he said. “There are also genuine reasons why you don’t get on in particular firm that are not down to your individual performance, but there’s also an element of ‘you would say that’. Point a potential employer in the direction of other people who can verify what you’re saying.”

A number of short-term assignments on your resume is no longer the stigma that it once was, even in industries that value long-term performance, said Dewhirst: “Hiring managers, despite being more demanding, are also more empathetic about people who have a number of recent roles on their CV. If someone has a good reputation and can demonstrate long-term performance then most recruiters can see this.”

There are also more qualitative reasons for leaving a firm after a short period of time. The most commonly cited ones are a change of strategy or management.

“People can join a firm only for a senior manager, often their advocate, to leave shortly afterwards, which results in a loss of status or influence for new employees,” said Jackson. “The important thing is to put a positive spin on the situation, explaining what happened but also what you learned from the experience.”

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