Succeed After a Layoff By Reinventing Yourself

by | March 10, 2009

  • My Vault

When I was laid off at age 58, I had one major factor on my side: I didn't take my job loss personally. My former company, a large supply-chain-management software-development business, was like a rocket ship. In less than three years, the company grew from 2,000 to 6,000 employees.

That rate of growth isn't always sustainable, and the company was severely wounded by the downturn in the economy. Still, I didn't expect that my job would end up on the chopping block. As director of global information services, the most senior information-services executive, I grew my team from 17 professionals to 170. So when the layoff came in 2001, I was shocked but not disheartened. I had weathered enough economic ups and downs to realize that many talented people lose jobs through no fault of their own.

But I was also realistic about my post-layoff future: My income was not going to be replaced any time soon. I knew I was in for a long job search, maybe a year or more. Out went the hair stylist, replaced by the barber. Ditto the pool and lawn services, whose duties I took over. An unrepentant new car buff, I had three beauties sitting in my garage. With regret, two of them went, too.

That was the paring-down process. The building-up process began with a few home-office purchases -- a quality computer, scanner, fax and printer -- with no payments or interest for 12 months, of course. Then I turned to what I would need, both personally and professionally, to refocus and rebuild my life. Here are the lessons I've learned.

  • Share your feelings and seek support.

At the outset, I took two critical steps. The first was sharing my job loss with my family and friends, as well as my business associates. I craved the emotional support and I wanted to maximize my networking.

The second step was to purposely ignore my feeling that I was an executive with a long and successful career who didn't need help making the transition to a new job. Reluctantly, I signed up with the outplacement firm that my employer hired. That was easily the single smartest thing I did.

I joined a group of other displaced executives, who became invaluable for support and networking. I also had a range of research tools at my disposal. Most importantly, I was offered counseling, training and psychological testing to help me explore my desires and abilities in a new way.

  • Explore your talents and reassess your aspirations.

What emerged was an untapped talent for sales and a hunger to stay busy and connected. I continued to branch out, in some cases using my newfound sales ability. I delved into fundraising for the Make-A-Wish Foundation and volunteered at my church. I pursued new professional and personal contacts, with the dual goals of helping others and expanding my networking opportunities at the same time.

I encountered obstacles. I had restricted my job search to the Dallas-Fort Worth area and the information-technology industry, at least for the first year, and opportunities were limited. After a career that included long senior-management and vice-president stints working in IT for such organizations as the U.S. government, PepsiCo Inc. and Qualcomm Inc., my experience was deep but somewhat narrow.

  • Expect the unexpected and learn to cope with setbacks.

Something disturbing -- and eye-opening -- was happening among the people my outplacement group. Several had gone off to new jobs, filled with relief and anticipation. They looked forward once again to regular paychecks and, for some, the confirmation that they weren't damaged goods after all, just people who'd hit a rough patch.

Only things didn't always work out that way. More than a few returned in just four or five months. They were, without exception, competent managers, but the economy had continued to slump, and many were laid off again, some for the second or third time.

Seeing this made me reconsider my goals. I decided I would go into business for myself, using my decades of IT and general-business experience and my newly discovered interest in sales. I also drew on a newfound spirituality, supported and comforted by the belief that things happen for a reason.

By then, nearly 18 months had passed, and I hadn't brought in a dime.

  • Establish and pursue new goals.

With new enthusiasm and a clear goal, I started two firms: an IT-consulting company and a business providing promotional gifts for corporations. I was determined not to lock myself into one industry and sought security through diversity.

The concept for the IT-consulting business was simple: I would inventory a company's IT contracts, equipment and services and propose cost-saving measures. The sales pitch was a no-loss proposition for potential clients: Our compensation would be a percentage of the savings we identified. I started the business with a former employee in 2002, and the business continues to grow, although more slowly than I would like.

The second business provides corporate gifts as well as retail products, from the standard to the exotic. For example, we're developing specialty products made with alpaca wool.

Two and a half years after I was laid off, my income has not returned to its earlier level and I still cut the grass, clean the pool and think twice about going out for an expensive dinner. But the businesses are starting to pay off, albeit slowly, and I've re-evaluated what's truly important in my life -- my friends and family. It's not all about money.

  • Change is an opportunity for growth.

I can't say that being laid off was the best thing that ever happened to me. But change, even forced change, brings opportunity. I'm so convinced of this that I took a third job, as a consultant with an outplacement firm. Counseling laid-off executives' transition to their next opportunity helps pay the bills and is emotionally rewarding as well.

Now at 60 years of age, I'm a consultant and an entrepreneur. My life has become richer -- and more challenging -- in ways I could not have imagined. And if you're in the market for an alpaca scarf, an overhaul of your IT systems, or advice about bungee-jumping from a high-level executive job and landing on your feet, I'm your guy.

-- Mr. Fredella, based in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, is an entrepreneur and a consultant for DBM, a human-resources-consulting firm.

Filed Under: Job Search

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