Career planning: don’t be complacent, be prepared

It’s not unusual to find that senior individuals leaving organisations often struggle to reassert themselves in the job market.

Whilst employed, executives have often benefitted from carefully mapped out succession plans that pave their way to the most senior management or Board level roles. The focus is entirely internal and aimed at producing a qualified, experienced and highly capable ‘next generation’ of leaders well versed in corporate culture and aligned to the organisations vision and values.

However, things evolve. Whether the organisation is subject to acquisition, sees its CEO replaced or simply succumbs to factors linked to the external environment – change is rarely far away. For individuals who worked their way through the organisation, perhaps starting as a graduate trainee or joining early in their career as well as those who joined to undertake a specific role within a certain corporate culture; a sudden and unexpected change in strategic direction can often lead to significant disruption.

Whilst many individuals will adapt and re-calibrate themselves around the changes, many will not. Many will leave as a result of a senior level managerial reshuffle; some will hang on for a few months before eventually realising that things have changed to such an extent that it is time for them to seek employment elsewhere. For some, this time of career transition can be painful.

The more senior you are, the longer it can take

Whilst often (but by no means always) leaving with a sizeable redundancy payment can provide some degree of insulation from unemployment, many senior execs are surprised to discover how long it can take to get back into work. Depending upon an individual’s industry, market or functional expertise, securing a new role can take anything from a few short weeks to several months. Board members may often be ‘out of work’ for a year or more before securing their next appointment. Clearly whilst many may pick up consultancy or other work of an interim nature, many start to become disenchanted or lower their expectations fearing that their career may have peaked and is now on a slow and downward trajectory.

Simple steps to help you future proof your career

Long term career planning is overlooked by many people, however the failure to think about the future can result in a particularly disadvantageous and challenging experience, should change occur, for the most senior people.

Clearly it doesn’t have to be like this and simple steps can provide a degree of mitigation should these senior executives find themselves, unexpectedly, on the open market.  Key points to take note of may include:

  • Develop an ‘external’ focus to your role.  Becoming increasingly visible at industry events will help with longer term networking
  • Look to use social media more effectively – well-crafted articles on LinkedIn or news items that can be circulated within your industry will result in you reinforcing your credibility
  • Define a career plan and maintain a clear view around where you want your career to go – don’t ‘drift’.
  • Be open to new thinking and consider new ideas- don’t get pigeon-holed as ‘yesterday’s man’
  • Look to continually upskill yourself – whether through academic qualifications or simply through experiential learning.
  • Conduct a ‘what if’ career review every 6-12 months or so – if change were to occur tomorrow, how prepared would you really be?
  • Maintain an active log of achievements as a way to understand your market value
  • Ensure that an Executive level outplacement package is included in any separation agreement

It’s true that many employees often have little sympathy for senior executives going through redundancy, assuming, often incorrectly, that they will move straight into alternative employment.  This overlooks two key facts. Firstly, just as for others, redundancy can be an extremely stressful time –  regardless of seniority- and secondly, the most senior and experienced individuals in an organisation often find themselves with far fewer initial options than may be envisaged. For ‘big fish’ the pool of available and suitable jobs is often a relatively small pond.

So, whilst change involving job loss is rarely straightforward it is possible to mitigate the impact by ensuring that, as far as individuals are able, they ‘future proof’ their careers.  For senior executives ensuring that they are as well prepared as possible for every eventuality, including unexpected career change will be time well invested.