Advice for an Executive Laid Off After Decades With One Firm

Advice for an Executive Laid Off After Decades With One Firm
Advice for an Executive Laid Off After Decades With One Firm

Rhonda, a 57-year-old Californian who asked that we use a pseudonym, was laid off after 37 years with a medical laboratory company. She started out of college as a "bench tech" doing routine lab work, and when that became increasingly automated, moved into finance. In early September, she got a pink slip.

"This really shook my foundation and my life," she says. Rhonda's company went through multiple mergers and acquisitions over the years. Most recently, she worked in revenue services management, ensuring her firm was complying with all federal and state regulations in its billing for specialized testing.

Rhonda bought a single-family home in 1996 and has five years left on the mortgage, which has a balance of $40,000 at 5.75% interest. She has no other debt except a car loan, which she expects to pay off in 24 months. She doesn't want to move because she likes California (despite a bad experience in 1994, when she lived near the epicenter of the Northridge earthquake). She also enjoys lower-than-average property taxes, thanks to California's unique system, which bases taxes on a home's purchase price.

"I'm focused on getting my act together and getting back in market, but looking for a new [job] is daunting," says Rhonda, who didn't see the layoff coming. "I'm well-versed in regulatory finance and revenue cycle management. Today in the health care world, things are changing so fast and the challenges are so monumental I should be able to find something -- but I'm old."

Rhonda is already networking and putting a budget together, worried that she won't find a position that pays anything approaching her former salary of $170,000. She's thinking about paying off her mortgage to lighten her monthly bills.

The Plan for Finding Her Next Job

Dive into the search immediately, before the holiday season comes, says Paul Bernard, an executive coach in New York. "The fourth quarter is the second-busiest hiring season, followed by first quarter, which is the busiest hiring season," he says. "If she starts to hustle now she will be able to take advantage of that. She shouldn't be ashamed of letting people know she is in transition." Rhonda should plan to spend three to five hours a day on her job search, including at least two face-to-face networking meetings a week, he adds.

The first order of business should be identifying five to 10 target companies where she'd like to work. She should broaden her search beyond lab firms, suggests Bernard. "Her skill set is very transferable because regulatory and privacy issues are going to become more important," he says. "She might look to transfer those skills to a hospital or insurance company."

Once she has a focus, Rhonda needs to articulate her story through a well-crafted résumé. "Someone who hasn't looked for job in 37 years probably hasn't thought about résumés in 37 years," says Doug Sundheim, an executive coach and founder of Clarity Consulting in New York.

The key is not to tell her story chronologically, but to communicate the power of her accomplishments. "Make sure the résumé is telling the impact: 'Here's how I made money, saved money, kept the company out of hot water,' " Sundheim explains.

Given the many mergers and acquisitions, Rhonda may even want to list the original names of three or four of the companies, and then explain how they consolidated over the years in an interview, Bernard says.

Rhonda must frame her achievements to demonstrate her industry knowledge. "What keeps the CFOs of her [industry] up at night? Is it regulatory issues, growth, innovation? The impact of the storytelling on her résumé; should really communicate about whatever is keeping those people up at night," Sundheim advises.

She should list her top 15 to 20 achievements over the years, then narrow that list to four for her resume, scripting her "elevator pitch" around those successes. "She has probably been through several revolutions in integration, automation, technology, regulatory and privacy issues," says Bernard. "The fact that she's seen a lot of change [gives] her a wealth and depth of experience. She has to talk about why the gray hair and experience is an asset rather than a liability."

Update Your Image, Downgrade Your Salary Expectations

Once she has a strategy and a résumé, Rhonda can practice answering crucial interview questions, says Bernard. A few examples: "Tell me a about yourself. What are your strengths and weaknesses? What was your biggest challenge and how did you solve it? Biggest mistake and what did you learn from it? What would you do in the first week on the job? The first 90 days?"

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Next, Rhonda might consider an image update. "You don't want to look like someone hired in 1987," says Sundheim. "You get all sorts of credibility points when your image and mindset are up-to-date." He likes to quote Thomas Jefferson to his clients on this point: "In matters of style swim with the current. In matters of principle, stand like a rock." Once Rhonda has her résumé, an elevator speech and a fresh image, she should upload all of it onto LinkedIn.

Finally, Rhonda should be prepared to take a pay cut. About 19% of the jobs lost between the first quarter of 2008 and the first quarter of 2010 were concentrated in high-wage industries, according to a report issued in July by The National Employment Law Project, a worker's rights advocacy organization. The high-wage sector hasn't recovered: It declined another 1.2% from the first quarter of 2010 through the first quarter of 2011.

"If it looks like $140,000 but feels like a great job and good stepping stone, be mentally prepared to take less and figure out what that go/no-go number is," says Sundheim.

For that reason, I advised Rhonda not to pay off her mortgage. In the event that her salary is downsized, she'll need cash to cover her bills while she figures out where to cut back. "Had I known this was coming, I would have taken out a home equity line of credit," she says.

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