The break-up was difficult first time round, so why go back? Frida Kahlo did it. So did Elizabeth Taylor. And how about Steve Jobs? When returning to what you know pays off in a big way.


Sometimes the grass looks greener on the other side. But is there any shame in going back?

Vital skills for boomerang leaders

Alannah Raferty, associate professor at the University of New South Wales Business School


1. Manage your emotions. Being invited back can be personally satisfying, but it’s important not to appear smug. You’re coming back for the company’s good – not your own.
2. Observe and evaluate. Weigh up the current situation and work out what needs to be done to move the company forward.
3. Develop your network. Surround yourself with people who aren’t afraid to tell you the truth – good and bad – and will support your vision.
4. Work out how to sell your vision. Find out what message will resonate for both older and newer employees.

Harry Sowerby did just that in early 2015 when he was appointed managing director of UK-based exercise specialists British Military Fitness – a company he had co-founded 15 years earlier.

I just thought ‘my God, what do I really know about leading the whole company?'

So what does it feel like to be a ‘boomerang leader’, returning to a company you created, but later quit?

“To be honest, I felt really nervous,” Sowerby said. “I knew what I wanted to achieve, but I just thought ‘my God, what do I really know about leading the whole company?’

A year on and these early fears have proven unfounded. By sticking to his vision of building a company that brings together the camaraderie and focus of military life he’s now leading and motivating a national team that helps train over 20,000 people a week. 

Sowerby and a partner launched the company in 1999, after they worked as extras together on the movie Saving Private Ryan. The experience gave them the idea for military-inspired fitness sessions organised in parks.

The concept caught on and sessions are held in 140 parks across the UK every weekend. Yet Sowerby didn’t stick around to enjoy his success. As an army reservist who’d always been committed to military service, he was mobilised to serve in Iraq in 2003 and Afghanistan in 2006.

His deployment meant he left the business and passed on the reins to his co-founder – although he still retained a financial stake.

But, after going back to civilian life, he returned to BMF in 2014 when his co-founder retired.

“There was a feeling that the company had taken its eye off the ball,” he said.“I wanted to make it a fun place to work again. Afghanistan had taught me not to take everything so seriously and I wanted to make it somewhere people could work hard and play hard.”

Sowerby is in good company. It’s been a busy couple of years for ‘boomerang leaders’ who return to a company after a break, retirement or even a change of career.

Better the devil you know?

So why do boards return to CEOs who have already spent time in the hot seat? Paul Matthews from UK-based management development company People Alchemy explained that it’s for one of two reasons. Boards either want to make use of the experience CEOs have had in the wider world since leaving, or want more of the ‘magic’ they apparently had when they were in charge.

“That’s where the problems can start,” said Matthews.

When CEOs return they have to understand that the world has moved on.

“When CEOs return they have to understand that the world has moved on. They can’t just go back into the same role and expect to get the same results. Looking forward, not back is really the key skill Boomerang CEOs need to survive.”

Good company

This was the challenge facing Jack Dorsey when he returned to Twitter earlier in 2015 to turn around a company some financial analysts believed was being seriously out performed by rival Facebook.

They join an illustrious roster of people like Yang Yuanqing, who returned as CEO at Chinese computer giant Lenovo in 2009, and Larry Page, who returned to streamline Google in 2011.

Perhaps the most famous example is Steve Jobs, who resigned from Apple after much internal wrangling in 1985 before being asked back to take the company to new heights in 1997.

Boomerang Leaders aren’t just found in tech industries either. Proctor & Gamble brought much-loved ex-CEO A.G. Lafley back to the top spot in 2013 to try and reverse its fortunes – with mixed results.

For many of these CEOs there’s often a feeling of ‘unfinished business’ that leads to their reinstatement, especially if, like Jobs, they were with the firm from launch.

Every worker who’s waved goodbye to a much loved role, or even left a country for new opportunities abroad, wonders what would have happened if they’d stayed. Returning to a familiar firm can give you a satisfying sense of closure (especially if former colleagues are urging you to return) but there are pitfalls to be aware of too.

Returnees need to understand that the company will have changed, with different people calling the shots and fresh challenges to contend with in the market. This means quickly working out the new reality, rather than living in the past.

A lack of closure was the experience  for writer and entrepreneur Traci Bild from US-based healthcare company Bild & Co. She took a breather from the company she founded to work on her third business book in 2014.

“I'd run my company aggressively for eight years. I was tired and I just needed to step back,” she said.

“I was dealing with a lot of people’s egos and it started to suck the life out of me. I didn’t feel I was having fun anymore.”

In 2015 she reclaimed her role as CEO.

“I had a rebel entrepreneur style which just kind of left the company when I went,” she said.

“My staff, and the clients, felt that something had gone and wanted me to return. When I went back I had to apologise for leaving and share with people that I’d made a mistake by leaving,” she said.

“I just had to say that I needed a break, but it was a mistake and that now I’m definitely not going anywhere!”


Culture creation

Alannah Raferty, associate professor at the University of New South Wales Business School, said that it’s not surprising charismatic leaders become entwined with company culture. 

“Founder CEOs are really influential in culture creation,” she said.

“They’re often talked about as heroic leaders who’re familiar with the industry, the operations and past history. However, when they return, they have to assess exactly what’s happening in the company now.”

“What’s most likely to go wrong is that returning CEOs make the assumption that they can do what they used to do and still succeed,” she warned.

Companies change and so do markets. Sticking to your old formula isn’t enough.

“Companies change and so do markets. Sticking to your old formula isn’t enough to drive a company forward.”

Sowerby was well aware of this pitfall when he returned to British Military Fitness. He said that one of the company’s weaknesses was the way that competitors had emerged offering similar fitness products.

Ego versus humility

His answer was to fight back by strengthening the company’s culture – to showcase its core values of fitness, professionalism and having fun. This was the “work hard / play hard” ethos that he had experienced during his time in the military and wanted to re-establish at the company.

To ensure he understood the reality of British Military Fitness’ place in the marketplace today, Sowerby carefully listened to the feedback of his staff.

“I definitely didn’t go in hard,” he said.

“There’s no point going in shouting and sacking loads of people. That’s just going to break morale.

“Instead I spent sixth months just listening to other people. The staff want the company to work, they have no other agenda but to ensure the business does well – so if you don’t listen to them then you might as well not bother.”

To be asked back to a company you founded can be a brilliant ego boost, especially if, like Steve Jobs, you were originally sacked. Despite this, Sowerby said it’s important to avoid over-confidence and remember that you’re only as good as your team. 

Canadian-born management consultant Vince Molinaro agrees that humility can go a long way.

“Yes, it can be good for your ego and you might feel like the conquering hero coming back in – but it’s dangerous to let all that hype go to your head,” he said.

“Returning with a bit of humility would serve you well going forward. I think it’s always good to acknowledge the contribution of your predecessor.”

 

Part of this humility means accepting that not all staff will necessarily agree with your direction for the company – and instead focus on the people that can be won over and work with you.

“People have left – I appreciate their work and wish them well,” Sowerby said.

“But now, it’s a new start – it’s about surrounding yourself with people who love the job and want to be the best.”

As Jack Dorsey is no doubt finding out, being a Boomerang Leader can be a mixed blessing. Some, like Steve Jobs, take companies to stratospheric heights, others, like P&G’s AG Lafley don’t quite have the same impact. But as Matthews confirms, the key is to be realistic about current challenges, not rely on past triumphs.

Be realistic about current challenges, don't rely on past triumphs.

“In many ways Boomerang CEOs have it worse than new faces because they’ve got a reputation to live up to – and the clock will be ticking,” he said.

“Leaders who don’t quickly grasp the current situation, and act on it, will quickly find themselves in trouble.”    

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