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Laid-off executives take a step down on career ladder

NEW YORK — For Brian Hudson, the unthinkable happened this past June. The 45-year-old Orlando executive had been heading up a health care recruiting firm, which had grown to a healthy $2 million in revenues since he co-founded it in 2006. Then the recession hit full-force and suddenly Hudson found himself out of a high-powered job.

"My mind-set was that it was going to be the last job I'd ever have," Hudson says. "I co-founded the company and was president. I never thought I'd be in the position of being let go." Because his partner was the firm's sole financial backer, and a slimmed-down company couldn't support two sizable salaries at the top, Hudson was the one to go.

Hudson had two choices: He could sit and wait for another CEO- or president-level job that he'd worked so long to achieve, having climbed his way through the ranks of Fortune 500 companies like Target Corp. Or he could face reality, swallow hard, and take a step down the corporate ladder. He might not make as much money, or have as prestigious a job title — but at least he'd be working. He chose the latter.

"A lot of people are just waiting out there with false hope," says Hudson, who accepted a job with another recruiting firm, Avant Healthcare Professionals, as one of three vice presidents and has seen his pay slip by about 25 percent.

"I have a friend who was a kingpin with Motorola for 20 years, and now he's sitting and waiting for another company to snatch him up. But the market has contracted and often those jobs don't even exist anymore."

Separating person from position

Hudson is one of a growing corps of jobseekers: Anxious C-level executives who are torn between accepting something lower-paying and lower-ranking, or holding out for an equally powerful job that may or may not come. For Type-A personalities, it can be a wrenching decision to make.

"For people who completely identify themselves based on their jobs, you're taking away everything they know about themselves," says Dr. Tom Manheim, a financial adviser-cum-psychotherapist in Solana Beach, Calif., and author of the book Money Trouble. ''It leaves them totally empty, and can be very terrifying."

After all, with the unemployment rate now at 9.7 percent, the financial headlines are still grim. The economy shed 247,000 jobs in July, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics, making for a total since December 2007 of a whopping 6.7 million. And corporate upper ranks aren't sheltered from the carnage: More than 100 CEOs have been exiting their jobs every month this year, according to figures compiled by outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

Rewriting career plans

Trading down isn't just a recession-related dilemma, though. Whether you're switching careers or relocating with your spouse to a new city, jobseekers often have to consider taking a temporary hit to the resume. The good news: Slipping down the job ladder doesn't have to be an automatic negative.

"Moving down the ladder a few rungs is usually necessary before finding a more efficient elevator to replace the ladder entirely," says Tim Ferriss, author of the bestselling career guide The 4-Hour Workweek. ''Necessity is the mother of reinvention. Whether a year-long sabbatical, a new business idea, re-engineering your life within the corporate beast, or dreams you've postponed for 'someday,' there's never been a better time for testing the uncommon."

That's what Minneapolis' Ben Tensing has done, rewriting his career plan out of necessity. The 57-year-old had been a turnaround specialist for years, stepping into troubled companies as chief operating officer or president for two or three years, and getting them back on track. But when the recession took hold, he became open to the idea of taking temporary executive gigs, with contracts as short as 90 days.

Tensing enjoyed the process so much that in February he began working for the executive-placement firm that had helped find him temporary jobs, Vallon LLC, as its business development manager. In that position, he deals with executives like himself all the time.

"I meet people every week who are stuck in the same rut: They've gotta be president again," Tensing says. "People who have all these skill sets are sitting at home, and it's sad. But you have to set your ego aside, and overcome your desire to always be the leader. Be willing to help companies be successful, wherever they need you, and you can still have a very positive and rewarding career."

You're not alone

Indeed, if you're afraid of tarnishing your resume with a temporary blip, take comfort in the fact that millions are in the same boat. You'll hardly stand out for a change in career trajectory when the economy is going through its most violent churning in generations.

"What's the cost of failure when everyone is failing? Next to zero," says Ferriss. "Almost every resume will have a 2008-2010 'failure' somewhere on it. So it's a huge opportunity to experiment."

For Avant's Brian Hudson, trading down meant changing a mind-set that he'd spent years cultivating. "I had always been caught up in the rat race, going wherever the next promotion or better job title was," says the father of three. "But as long as you're doing something you enjoy, and are giving value, you should think of your job title secondarily. And then when the economy comes back, you'll be well-positioned to move back up."

Laid-off executives take a step down on career ladder 10/31/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 31, 2009 4:32am]
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