The economy is currently at record levels of employment and finally starting to tick up in growth rate after many years of low growth. However, if you are a mid-level or senior executive at a large corporation, the economy can feel more perilous than ever. Larger companies cannot adapt their business models fast enough in the digital economy and are going through organizational changes at a faster and faster pace. Reorganizations, acquisitions and mergers are the norm. Even though you may survive several organizational changes, it is likely your number may be called sooner than you would like.
If you’ve been in a corporate position for many years and now find yourself suddenly unemployed, you need to realize that things have changed and you now need to more deeply consider your career options than ever before. Technology advances and the gig economy have disrupted the traditional executive job search process. At the same time, life expectancy has increased, savings is at a historic low and people are working longer than ever so working past traditional retirement age is becoming standard.
When I was in career transition in 2004, 2015 and most recently in 2017, I found significant changes in approach were needed as the market continues to evolve ever more quickly. Some of the methods I learned during my transition in 2004 like networking were more important than ever, while other resources from that era like using outplacement firms are nearly extinct due to the digital economy.
Being in transition three times at different periods in the economy has taught me some hard earned lessons to share:
- NETWORK, NETWORK, NETWORK. Accept that networking is your only source of possible employment. Even if you see a job advertised, it is unlikely you will get an interview without networking your way to the hiring manager. Make a plan to spend all your time networking and learn to enjoy it and pay it forward for other people. Networking solved all three of my transitions, but it’s not passive. You have to reach out and keep networking every day. And importantly, your network is like a garden–it needs to be cultivated and regularly tended to provide long term value, not just to be used when you need help in transition. I have taken every networking meeting request over the last 15 years and it has paid huge long term dividends.
- CREATE A TARGET LIST. Create a target list of companies you want to investigate. Show the list to everyone you know and each networking contact you have. People want to help you but often can’t think of referrals if your criteria is broad. The more specific you are, the more likely they or someone they know will be connected to a company and you will get networking referrals. Thus, if you tell contacts you are only looking at Company XYZ (or even a category, like large banks), you will get more networking meetings than saying “I’m open to anything”. And show the list to everyone, including your friends and family. You will be amazed at how they will connect you to quality referrals who can then connect you to others.
Do some research and create a strong target list of possible companies to share with your network. Even if you’re only mildly interested in a company but it fits your industry, put it on the list—the goal is networking meetings, not necessarily a job.
- SET GOALS AND STAY MOTIVATED. Set a networking goal. My goal when I was searching was one networking meeting per day—I kept my coffee, lunch and cocktail time slots open for networking meetings Monday through Friday. Each networking meeting usually sent me to more referrals. This is a controllable goal and something you can achieve to help yourself gain confidence.
- GO SMALL. Due to the potential for age discrimination, focus your goals on smaller companies. Managers at larger companies are looking to take less risk in hiring, even if a more experienced hire could help them grow business. It is more likely you can take a higher title at a smaller company and keep a relatively similar salary, if not a small pay cut. Trade up on title and responsibility even at the cost of some salary, as it will provide you with more access to possible equity opportunities and better control of your exit strategy. Accept that in a big company, there will be little chance of being in middle management (vice president or director roles) at age 60. If you’re approaching 50 and not in the C-suite yet, there is a decent chance you may be downsized in your 50s. Thus, it is better strategy to focus on smaller and mid-sized companies that would more highly value your skills and experience.
- EXIT STRATEGY. If you do find a position at a larger company, do your best to negotiate an exit strategy up front or through an employment agreement. You may have specialized skills that you can enable you to offer a non-compete or other concessions in return for an exit package. This can cushion the blow of an acquisition, reorganization or management change that might affect your position.
- GET TACTICAL FOR POSTED JOBS. If you find a job posted in which you’re interested, you can apply online but likely will not receive a response. You MUST find a way to network into that company, preferably to the hiring manager, to have a chance at the position. If it’s a publicly advertised senior level position, it will have hundreds of qualified candidates (no matter what the news says about a tight job market). Candidates referred in through warm contacts will have the edge.
- USE LINKEDIN. Focus your search and social efforts on LinkedIn, get a premium membership and use targeting or InMail to find critical contacts. If you don’t understand LinkedIn best practices, research it online—there are tons of useful free resources to learn how to do this.
- KEEP YOUR NETWORK UPDATED. One of the most effective networkers I have met created an email list for all of his networking contacts and sent out an update on his status once a month during his search. It kept all of us vested in his success and I thought it was a unique and valuable strategy. I’m sure it led to more networking opportunities for him. Even if you don’t take this step, make sure to send thank you emails and update each networking contact after meeting with one of their referrals. Once they give you advice, they are now vested in your success.
- UNDERSTAND RECRUITERS. Send your resume to all online and executive recruiters, but realize they work for the employers and won’t call you unless they have a job that you perfectly match on paper. While there are a few who have a long term mindset and look to build relationships, their primary job is to provide employers with multiple candidates with perfectly matched credentials, then let the company determine the best cultural and strategic fit.
- FOCUS LOCAL. Even if you’re willing to relocate, companies will not want to talk to you if you’re from another market. Perhaps if you are in a super specialized technical field your opportunities may be more national, but if you’re in general management, operations, accounting or finance your best odds of finding a good opportunity are likely local. If you’re serious about moving, then relocate to the city first or rent an apartment and make a commitment to begin networking there. Online job applications in a city you’re only casually interested in will just waste your time.
- EXPLORE ALTERNATIVES. Even though you may have only considered working at another job, you might benefit from exploring alternatives to traditional employment. It can help you more deeply consider your career goals and evaluate your risk profile. The gig economy is real and technology has lowered the barriers to starting a business. Many people are finding that with low overhead and flexible hours, being self-employed is an option through consulting, taking a project-based or short term assignment or looking at franchise opportunities. There are many favorable financing avenues and startup costs can be lower than expected.
The gig economy is real and technology has lowered the barriers to starting your own business.
As mentioned, age discrimination can be a real issue as you reach middle and senior management in corporate America. I was age 46 when I left a regional company as CEO after 11 years. I realized quickly that large companies were not hiring anyone in my age range for positions or salaries I found acceptable, so I had to change tactics to move forward and achieve my goals. For me, it quickly reduced to three combinations of strategies:
As suggested above, I could go to a smaller company where I could control my destiny and exit strategy better;
EAT WHAT YOU KILL
Find a sales or commission based role, where there is lower risk for the employer due to low or no base salary but higher income potential.
BET ON YOURSELF
Move fully to self-employment or business ownership.
While I chose to take commission based roles and transitioned to self-employment and franchise ownership, it wasn’t the easiest path. But it has been very rewarding and I’ve crossed the proverbial Rubicon–I won’t go back to working for someone else. Even though I’m working as much or more than ever, unlike creating value for others, my efforts feel empowering and gratifying while controlling my time and schedule is invaluable.
Whether a career alternative is a consideration or you are solely seeking a new executive role, planning ahead for your post-corporate career move can make a lot of sense to mitigate career risk in today’s economy. Build your strategy based on networking and follow the tips above to help improve your odds of a successful mid-career transition.
David Busker is the Founder of FranchiseVision and a Franchise Consultant with FranChoice, the premier national network of franchise consultants. David helps candidates exploring franchise ownership to set their criteria and then matches them with the perfect franchise. You can learn more about David at FranChoice.
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