One of the unpleasant realities of the economic climate is that the specter of job loss now stalks the halls of corporate America, and is as prone to haunt the executive suite as anywhere else.
That raises a compelling question: What happens to a topside executive who lands on the street suddenly after many years of unstinting toil and travel? To be sure, such a person is likely to be highly privileged since sustaining income won't be a problem. To most people who lose a job, a single agenda presents itself: Find another.
But for those lucky enough to consider alternatives, the issue becomes one of what to do next. That's a real issue and one that was confronted four years ago by Robert E. Stauth, then president and chief executive officer of Fleming Cos. I spoke to Bob a few days ago to find out how he managed that situation.
Bob recalled for me how sudden his departure from Fleming was: He went to a board meeting one day. Shortly thereafter, he was asked to step from the room. Upon his return, he discovered his career at Fleming, started 32 years earlier, was concluded. He was 54 years old.
"It was just that abrupt, and it quickly brought into focus this question: 'What do you do for 168 hours a week until you reach the more traditional retirement age of 65 and start to travel and play golf?"' he recalled.
Bob said three possibilities were evident: Start another career either in food distribution or by leveraging his severance package into an entrepreneurial endeavor; consider himself retired and find out what might happen next, or somehow give back to society whatever was to be learned in a lifetime of decision making in the context of a long corporate career. All of these possibilities were contingent on financial security, good health and a positive mind-set, he acknowledged.
Luckily, Bob said, he had long considered what might happen if his career abruptly stopped; he had previously worked on cultivating non-career interests, including photography and academia. The latter has by now evolved into a volunteer effort that keeps him busy 35 hours most weeks at Arizona State University. There he runs a mentoring program and teaches. He continues with photography too.
Asked what advice he might have for an executive newly ejected in a boardroom coup, Bob said that such a possibility should be considered during a person's 40s, not when it happens. "I would ask [a fired executive], 'Wouldn't it have been nice if you had developed a plan 20 years ago that would lead you to what you'll be doing now? If you haven't, this will be a difficult and traumatic time that's controlled by someone who has just told you to leave."'
Finally, he said, no executive should confuse job titles and the trappings of office with self-worth and identity.
"Some people confuse themselves with their title, and when that title is gone, all the air goes out of the balloon. There's no relationship between title and who you really are."