Saturday, April 30, 2011

Is "Second Career" Talent Being Underutilized?

Listening to HBR Ideacast host Sarah Green's interview with Marc Freedman, author of "The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage Beyond Midlife" made me think of many executives that I've spoken with over the past several years and the loss of knowledge and talent when they are RIF'd from a corporate environment.

Typically, Career Solutions works with smaller companies, under 500 in total employment. These size organizations find tremendous benefit from addition of seasoned, experienced executives who bring a wealth of knowledge and unique perspective to smaller, growing companies.

There is a big risk to a small company in hiring someone accustomed to a Fortune 1000 organization. I like to tell people that they will have to want to "wear lots of hats". This is not a joke. Large corporations can have several layers of management which shelter an individual from the daily accountability and a do-it-yourself environment of a small business (the federal government says any company with less than 500 employees is a small business). The biggest risk to a large corporate executive who starts a new job in a small business is misinterpreting the work environment and not being an initiator. Waiting for something to happen has meant the early exit of many large corp to small corp execs.

This kind of turnover is a disaster - the magnitude of which deserves a separate post.

Corporate culture and our society in general plays a big role in this scenario as Freedman relates. The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 was enacted to protect workers over the age of 40 largely because corporate culture is based upon "ascending the ladder".

When I talk with RIF's executives, we talk about appropriate positions for them to re-enter corporate America. But also if they're beyond 40, I discuss the likelihood that they may not be able to "get back on the ladder". Then the options become early retirement or joining the "working retired", starting a business or franchise, going back to school for some, or accepting a "lesser" position with a corporation.

It's that last option that is the most troublesome. Our large corporations are so focused on this "ascending the ladder" idea that convincing an HR or hiring manager that stepping down the ladder is okay is extremely difficult. There is the age discrimination factor, sure. And, I agree that there should be a concern that someone taking a step down will not have the motivation to commit to being fully engaged in a lesser role. But our society's prevalent corporate culture is really flawed for not finding a way to reintegrate older, knowledgeable executives into roles where they can mentor younger executives, managers, and staff.

I always encourage people transitioning out of a corporation to think broadly about their options. What are the things they are truly passionate about that they would love to do, that they've never had the chance to do? Well, some of them are most passionate about leadership and management but are shunned by corporate America. This will continue to be a problem for American business because as Freedman relates, "Half the children born in the developed world today will reach their 100th birthday."

So the new career stage beyond midlife could be something completely different like starting a new company, retirement, or applying their skills in a smaller organization. But, I think for an organization that truly cares about management and its people, rehiring "second career" execs in mentorship roles would pay big dividends.

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