When New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art hired Sree Sreenivasan as its first-ever chief digital officer in 2013, the move made headlines. So did his work in the three years that followed.
Sreenivasan, 45, who was previously a technology reporter and Columbia School of Journalism professor, brought the museum into the social media age: He led the creation of the museum’s first app, invited influential Instagrammers inside during closing hours to photograph the #emptyMet, and brought the Met’s collection online via a cleaner, mobile-friendly website.
So on Friday (June 17), when the museum announced that Sreenivasan would be leaving his position at the end of the month as part of a wider effort to cut costs, the move again made headlines.“If you want to invite me to anything, I now have time.”
But while many high-profile executives might have responded by withdrawing to lick their wounds and work their networks behind the scenes, Sreenivasan went in entirely the opposite direction.
The same day the news broke about his dismissal, he posted a note on Facebook. Sreenivasan shared the Met’s company-wide memo and his gratitude to his bosses and team, and he outlined some loose plans (a book, consulting, a speaking tour, and a family vacation in India). Perhaps most importantly, he said he was open to any and all meetings and included a link to a form inviting friends to offer advice about what he should do next.
“If you want to invite me to anything, I now have time, including for meaningful cups of coffee and drinks,” he wrote. “I’d also love to go walking with anyone available. I try to walk 5 miles a day, I plan to make it 8-10 miles this summer.”
The comments on the post—hundreds of them—were effusive and congratulatory, considering the circumstances. Exclamation points and emoji abounded. High-power media types on Twitter endorsed Sreenivasan’s talents and shared the news that he was available.
It appeared Sreenivasan, in one fell swoop, had taken a stressful and potentially embarrassing experience—the public loss of a high-profile position—and spun it into an opportunity.
Any TED talker could tell you, failure is so hot right now. But Sreenivasan’s post—really a call for support and help—went beyond that. He demonstrated a deft, natural mastery of his medium, social media, and gave his network the ammo they would need to help him out of his predicament.
Four days after the Wall Street Journal reported that he was forced to resign from his $328,900-a-year post, Sreenivasan strode into Central Park, where dog-walkers and cyclists made their morning rounds. He still had six days before his tenure would end on June 30, and was walking from his Upper West Side home to work. The morning was sticky, but Sreenivasan looked cool in a purple windowpane shirt, a matching pocket square tucked into his navy blazer.
On that sunny morning in Central Park, I took Sreenivasan up on his offer of a walk, to find out how he pulled off turning a public firing into a masterpiece of personal branding—and how his methods might work for the rest of us when we encounter our own rainy days. Here are his tips.
Build your network before you need it
Sreenivasan, an early adopter of social media, has for more than a decade made a practice of living publicly—and generously—on its various platforms.
“Desperation does not work on LinkedIn.” In the past week he has broadcast a visit to Washington, DC, his daughter’s dance recital, and his regular weekly reading of the New York Times via Facebook Live. He prolifically tweets to his 76,800 followers. He offers what he calls his “SreeTips” to journalists on using social media via Facebook, Tumblr, and a podcast.
This made sharing his news on social media—first on Facebook, then on Medium and Twitter—look natural, rather than thirsty.
“You need an incredible support group, and people who understand.” said Sreenivasan. “You have to build it when you don’t need it.”
That doesn’t mean you have to start Snapping your daily commute, but you should probably keep your resumé and LinkedIn profile fresh, maintain your professional contacts, and be generous with your time and advice.
“Join LinkedIn today, when you don’t need a job,” said Sreenivasan. “Desperation does not work on LinkedIn.”
Go public as soon as you can
Like many in his position, Sreenivasan said it had not been his immediate reaction to share the news he would be leaving his position.
“My instinct was that I needed a job,” he said. “To have a job, and then to tell people I’m leaving.”
After several days, Sreenivasan realized that at his level, offers wouldn’t immediately pile up—especially in the summer. So the same day the Met sent a company-wide memo about Sreenivasan’s departure, he went ahead and posted the aforementioned note on Facebook. By then, he had already shared the news with his team and family.
“Everything I’ve gotten has come from being completely open and sharing everything I know,” said Sreenivasan. “So then I said, ‘Let me be open and free. See what happens. Let the universe help.’”
It’s okay to be vulnerable
In doing so, he took control of the story and the situation—which he acknowledged wasn’t easy.
“The most precious thing I have is my job—the security around it,” said Sreenivasan, who is a father of teenage twins. “What that says about you as a man.”
“Don’t worry about trolls. Amplify your fans.” Sreenivasan displays no false optimism about the road ahead. “I felt like I’ve been at my own funeral,” he said of his last days on the job. “Everyone’s saying nice things, but there’s only so much they can do for the guy in the box.”
And of course, like all powerful people, Sreenivasan has his detractors, and he might have opened himself up to a smidge of schadenfreude from those who side-eyed his meteoric rise at the Met. But the 300-plus responses Sreenivasan received to his online form were, he said in another Facebook post, like a “giant digital hug.”
“It just tells you how nice people are, and how much they want to help you,” he said. “Don’t worry about trolls. Amplify your fans.”
Jeff Jarvis, the author of Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live, agreed. (Having made a point of writing extensively about his experience going through prostate cancer, surgery, and its aftermath, Jarvis knows whereof he speaks.)
“You have to be willing to be vulnerable,” said Jarvis. “And you have to trust your friends.”
Control the narrative by setting it free
Sharing vulnerability doesn’t necessarily worsen it, Jarvis explained. Quite the contrary: The benefits of sharing—and thereby controlling—one’s own story far outweigh the risks.
By way of example, he presented two scenarios. In one, a person shares a piece of information with a friend at a bar. That friend can make a decision about whether to share it, and under which circumstances.”It’s no longer private, and you lost control of it to that extent,” said Jarvis. Meanwhile, the friend is left uncertain what to do with the information: Maybe it’s a secret, not to be shared at all. Maybe sharing it could be seen as nefarious gossip.
The second scenario, in which a person goes totally public with the information, as Sreenivasan did, makes the compact clear.
“With Sree, there’s no doubt,” said Jarvis. “He told the world, and so can you.”
Be open to meetings and advice
The most important part of that initial Facebook post was a bit like a dating profile, offering to meet for a coffee, a drink, a long walk in the park, and conveying clearly: I’m single and ready to mingle.
“I’m meeting everybody,” said Sreenivasan. (Indeed, when I asked him if we could take a walk to discuss his strategy on a Monday afternoon, he was booked through the evening; hence our morning commute through the park.) There’s no shame in taking tons of meetings—especially when one’s calendar is suddenly open. You never know which one might lead somewhere.
On that particular morning, ours led to the grand stone steps at the Met, where Sreenivasan would work until the end of the month.
He had managed to make his departure look, quite literally, like a walk in the park. But by the time he walked through that heavy front door, he was starting to sweat a little.