The great jazz vocalist Billie Holiday used to quip, “I’m always making a comeback, but nobody ever tells me where I’ve been.” Today celebrities have a tougher time coming back. That’s especially true when they’re rebounding from scuffles with the law. People may forget, but the Internet has one heck of a memory. Blemishes are forever. Or are they? Two mega-celebrities have shaken up the rules.
Michael Milken, the king of junk bonds, and Martha Stewart, the queen of julienned beans, have crafted earthshaking turnarounds. You may never expect to be sent up the river. Still, there’s plenty to learn from how these two tackled adversity. Both have proven to be masters of selling their new identities to a skeptical and often cynical public.
Rudy Giuliani—then U.S. Attorney in New York—prosecuted Milken on a slew of securities-related violations. Milken pleaded guilty and was sentenced to prison for 10 years but was released after 22 months. He was ordered to pay $600 million in settlements and fines.
After prison, the real lightning hit. Within weeks of being released, Milken was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He underwent treatments and radically changed his lifestyle. He beat the disease, but Milken didn’t stop there.
Mike Milken reorganized the war on cancer. He founded the Prostate Cancer Foundation. It’s the world’s biggest source of prostate cancer research funding. His management savvy at the helm of this foundation has accelerated the pace of prostate cancer research. Experts say he’s a force in cutting cancer fatalities. Fortune magazine even put him on its cover, dubbing him “The Man Who Changed Medicine.”
Martha Stewart’s tapestry has a different weave. In Martha’s kitchen, her sticky stock deal couldn’t have been smaller potatoes. It was the arrogance people saw in her that fried the public. After a testy trial, some were happy to see Martha hauled off to the slammer.
Martha Stewart could have stewed away her time in stir. Instead she foraged for dandelions and other salad fixings in the prison yards. Martha took up crocheting. She read books and practiced yoga. While she was briefly out of circulation, Sears and Kmart sealed a merger that would put Martha’s merchandise in front of millions more eyeballs. Not bad for an alumna of a lockup cleaning crew
Comebacks don’t just happen. They require thoughtful planning and a keen eye for learning and changing how you’re regarded.
- Take your medicine. In many people’s judgment, Martha Stewart did plenty of stupid things. But she did one smart one. She served her time quickly and got the ordeal behind her. She read the handwriting on the wall. She knew every day she wasted fighting the verdict would deteriorate her credibility and her assets.
- Win over your worst enemy. Take a guess: Which one person would never be a Milken booster? If you bet on Rudy Giuliani, you should have folded. Giuliani is also a fellow prostate cancer survivor, as am I. Giuliani has written that Milken’s assault on prostate cancer has made him “an extremely effective advocate… Milken not only faced up to a deadly disease but is doing a great deal to help others do the same.” Do good, and the world will come around.
- Respect the public will. Milken bonded with prostate cancer victims. Martha Stewart brought attention to the plight of female inmates. When the tide turns against you, go with the flow. That holds for small things as much as big ones. Let’s say there’s a plan to increase the dues in your club. You’re the only member to oppose the hike. The dues are raised. Be the first to pay the increase. People won’t remember you as a curmudgeon. They’ll peg you as a team player.
- Change what you’ll be remembered for. Mike Milken could have embedded himself in history as a Wall Street rogue. Instead, he looks like he’s working overtime to become the next Alfred Nobel. And who knows—Milken may just reach his goal.
When you stumble, nothing beats being humble.
Excerpted from: The Mackay MBA of Selling in the Real World