Downward & Onward: Leaving the CEO Position Behind
By Wendy Enelow, CCM, MRW, JCTC, CPRW
John Gregory had had enough. He was worn out from the constant pressures of his CEO career … the endless meetings and strategy sessions, tedious financial audits and reviews, the ongoing “helpful” interference of his board members, the pressure and the stress … it all added up to one headache after another, one challenge after another and more battles than he chose to have at this point in his life.
At age 49, after 12 years as the CEO of three different companies, John was ready to walk away from it all. It was time. It wasn’t fun anymore and he felt little satisfaction from a “job well done.” Most of all, he missed the “people” part of the job – the human resource functions that he used to manage earlier in his career and that he had enjoyed so very much. That was where he had found true career satisfaction, peace and fulfillment.
So, with a specific objective in mind – to move downward from CEO to HR Manager/Director – John launched his search campaign. Here’s how he did it, the strategies he used and the lessons to be learned.
Step 1 – Identify all your skills, experiences, achievements, affiliations and more that tie directly to your current objective. The single most important component of making a downward career shift (or any career transition for that matter) is to thoroughly evaluate your past work history, education, volunteer experience, community service, professional affiliations and more to identify any and all skills and competencies that you have that support your current career goals.
For John, his objective was to utilize his previous HR experience in recruitment, training and development, compensation and benefits, HRIS technology, organizational development, change management and more. He thought long and hard about his transferable skills and carefully outlined them all in preparation for writing his resume and getting ready to interview.
Step 2 – Write a resume that highlights those transferable skills and experiences. Think of it strategically – you want to shift the overall focus of your resume from what you are currently doing and instead bring other career experiences to the forefront. Normally, when preparing a resume for a CEO or other C-level job seeker, the focus is on revenue and profit performance, organizational growth, new product/service development, strategic leadership and the like. In this situation, however, we didn’t write the “typical” CEO resume because that’s not how John wanted to be perceived.
Instead, we wanted to highlight John’s secondary experiences and position them as primary. To accomplish that, we wrote a resume that brought all of his ancillary HR experience to the forefront – HRIS technology, benefits, compensation, training, employee coaching and more. In fact, we even used a phrase in his summary – “HR generalist experience” – that clearly communicated he had the experience; just not the title. And, we even included that he was a member of the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD) and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) in his summary to further strengthen his positioning. By creating this type of resume, John was instantly perceived as an “HR guy” which was precisely what he wanted.
Then, in his job descriptions, we highlighted HR-related activities, special projects, responsibilities and more. Even though we included his CEO title (remember, 100% honesty at all times on resumes!), the focus of each job description was on building and optimizing organizations, introducing leading-edge HR programs, shifting corporate cultures, designing salary structures and the like.
Step 3 – Write a cover letter with a dual focus on both your transferable skills and your reason for wanting to make a career change. In order for your letter and your resume to have maximum impact, you have to communicate a bit of the story about why you want to make a career shift so that prospective employers and recruiters will understand. Use your letter to express your professional commitment to, experience and interest in your new career field. At this point, stay away from more personal comments such as being happy and finding fulfillment. This type of personal information is best saved for the actual interview.
For John, we created a letter that stressed his professional HR competencies, but also communicated how much he had enjoyed his HR responsibilities throughout his career and how much he had achieved. The letter talked about his belief that no organization was stronger than its workforce and to retain top talent a company needed top HR leadership. Then, at the end, we included a brief statement that said “After 12 years at the top, it is now time to pursue my own professional interests and there is no where I would rather contribute than in a top HR leadership position."
Step 4 – Interview well by communicating your professional competencies for the position for which you are applying AND both your personal and professional reasons for wanting to make a downward career shift. Of course, you want to focus a great deal of the interview on the strength of your professional qualifications and your track record of performance. However, it is vitally important that you also communicate that you’re not looking for an “easier” job, but rather, a new career track where you can once again find joy in your work and feel a sense of accomplishment.
It didn’t matter to John that moving into an HR position would be a step or two down the organizational chain of command. What mattered was to find a position where he could again feel good about himself and what he did everyday … a position where he was happy and fulfilled.
It is important to remember that personal information is always best communicated in an interview situation and not on paper. In an interview, you can immediately tell how that information is being received by your interviewer and, as such, adjust your comments accordingly. If you have an interviewer is who impressed with your personal and professional dedication, then tell the whole story of why you want to make the move and the personal issues impacting your decision. If, on the other hand, someone becomes immediately uncomfortable the moment you start talking about your personal desires and commitments, shift the conversation back to your professional aspirations as quickly as you can.
John’s career transition is not unlike many that are happening today. All too many people are finding themselves waking up one day and wondering what happened to their lives. They got caught up in the frenzy of moving ahead in their careers and kept striving for the next promotion and the next, until they’d worked their way to the top.
Once there, however, many executives are finding that they’re not happy. They’re disillusioned, lost in the maze of strategic planning, financial accountability, cost control, board relations, investor relations and the like. No longer are they doing what they love, whether that be human resources, sales, marketing, production management or any one of hundreds of other professions.
Although by no means a statistical study, I have watched people in their 20’s and 30’s strive to get ahead. Then, one day, in their mid-40’s to mid-50’s, their focus changes and personal things often become more important than professional things. They certainly want to continue as productive, well-compensated and contributing business managers and executives, but they no longer feel the need to get to and retain the #1 position. Now, they want to be happy and content with what they do for a living, believing they are indeed making a contribution.
What many have learned is that their identity is no longer based on their job title. If you’re 29 years of age and a Vice President of an association, that’s an outstanding achievement and one that certainly should and will impact your identify. However, at age 49, the title often isn’t nearly as important as it was and things such as life/work balance really do become important.
More than ever before, today’s workforce is beginning to understand that finding happiness in your work life is not about being #1. Rather, it’s all about leveraging your skills, talents and competencies to do what you love. If you decide to make a downward shift into a new career track that excites and challenges you, you may come to find that you are one of the “chosen” few – managers, executives and other professionals – who have indeed found the answer to their career satisfaction.
Whether you’re the Executive Director of an association seeking to return to the #2 position where you’ll be more responsible for execution instead of strategy … the CEO of an organization now seeking to transfer into a CFO role where you can directly manage finance, treasury and taxes … the President of a company wishing to return to a field sales management position where you can really have an impact on revenue performance … or whatever your objectives at this point in your career, the resume, cover letter and interview tips in this article will help you favorably position yourself for a positive and fulfilling career transition. Others may think it’s a downward move, but for you, it’s the perfect move!