The right way to exit senior executives

JC Townend Article 4 mins

There will be times when even your most senior executive roles are no longer needed in the organisation, due to redundancy, changing business priorities, or changes in personal circumstances. Exiting business leaders gracefully is never an easy process. It can come with a number of risks that, if not handled well, can negatively impact the individual and your organisation. However, it can also present opportunities to both parties if handled in the right way. 

Greater visibility means greater risk 

When senior executives leave an organisation due to changing business needs, there is often high visibility and scrutiny from clients, markets, and the employee population. If not handled well, the negative impact can be felt not just by the individual but across the entire organisation.  The executive can play a substantial role in the positive messages conveyed during and after an exit, and it is important that both the executive and the organisation are motivated to convey the change in a positive way.

Without due attention, making changes in senior leaders can quickly taint opinions within the organisation and with its stakeholders. Clients, shareholders, and employees may question the direction and changes in the company.  If the departures give the remaining employees negative emotions and unfavourable views of their employer, they are unlikely to provide the extra effort and collective input organisations need to flourish in these competitive times. And the individual him/herself, when moving on, may tarnish the employer’s brand externally. It’s no surprise then that 71% of companies providing outplacement services to departing employees cited “improving reputation and protecting the brand” as the key driver for paying for professional transition support (Aberdeen Group Research 2016). 

Senior leaders need senior support

It can take up to two years for a senior leader to secure his/her next role. That’s a long time in which negative feelings towards your organisation may fester, particularly without expert support. The requirements of senior executives are considerably more complex than just standard outplacement services. They are seeking specific, senior roles that are less frequently open than mainstream roles, and not usually advertised. Many are seeking elusive international roles.  They might also be at the stage where they will be considering a new and unfamiliar career path such as self-employment, advisory roles, board/NED roles, and trusteeships.  

The right way

With this level of complexity, it’s no surprise that we’re seeing a growing demand for expert, strategic transition services designed for senior executives. As someone who has benefitted from this kind of service in the past, I want to share my experience and provide some tips on the right way to offer outplacement to add value to not only the individual but also your organisation:

1. Education is key

When I was first offered outplacement, I’ll admit, I hadn’t heard of it and didn’t think I needed it.  I was part of the top executive team of a global consultancy that sent me from America to the UK to lead their European and Asian business, based in London. After successfully leading two acquisitions and strong organic growth, my 3-year term was up and the company wanted me to come back to the US. However, my family found ourselves in a position where we wanted to remain in the UK and I agreed with my company to a mutual separation. The HR Director provided me with senior director outplacement support with LHH Penna’s Senior Director’s Unit (SDU) as a part of my severance package.  I didn’t know what that was, but over the next 12 months I came to realise how very important this service was to my successful transition.

TIP for HR Directors: You are the gate keeper. Without you opening up this opportunity and making it clear what outplacement can do for senior executives during such an unsettling time, neither they nor your organisation will reap the benefits. Most successful senior leaders will have a high degree of confidence in their own abilities to find their next position, and they “won’t know what they don’t know” until well into their transition journey. 

TIP for Exiting Senior Executives:  A senior executive outplacement service can be critical in providing the specific help, perspective and connections you need to find the right role or route going forward.  Ask for it in your severance package.

2. Pause and chart a considered path

I went to the SDU with my CV in my hand, expecting them to help me refine it and help connect me to my list of preferred organisations.  However, my coach quickly highlighted why that was not the first thing I needed to do. Since the SDU had worked with thousands of CEOs, Managing Directors, and other senior executives in the same situation, my coach was able to help me chart a path that would generate the most opportunities that were most aligned to what I really wanted to do next.  My SDU coach helped me pause and reflect on my specific attributes and how those could be applied to new organisations in new ways, and then where I should focus my path before we even got to my CV. This was an invaluable conversation to have. Some senior executives I met needed other kinds of coaching.  Some needed counselling/perspective to get over the hurt of having to leave their roles behind before they were ready to grasp the new opportunities open to them. Others were looking to move from full-time roles into an unfamiliar portfolio career, including individual consulting and board/NED roles, and needed guidance and networks to make those moves successfully. Ultimately, all of us needed a custom strategy leveraging the expertise of an organisation that had seen it all before.

TIP for HR Directors: Outplacement support at this level has to be delivered by senior consultants who understand the unique challenges of transitioning senior executives.  Providing that level of expertise, experience and relatable industry knowledge will not only add value to the experience but also create the personalisation that is necessary for this level. 

TIP for Exiting Senior Leaders: Just because you have been highly successful in your career, and likely know how to sell and market yourself, does not mean you are the best expert to chart what’s next in your own career transition.  Seek out the expertise of an outplacement provider that has successfully guided thousands of other senior executives. 

3. Powerful connections

The thing I found most valuable at this level was the networks. Since the SDU works exclusively with very senior executives, it carries prestige that supports high calibre candidates for interactions and networking. This reputation boosts your exposure to the best roles with top recruiters who trust and respect the SDU. I was connected to a wide range of willing recruiters and well-placed executives, often alumni (all very senior, and many at the C-suite, Partner, or MD level), that helped me learn more about the market and organisations in which I was interested. I personally ended up having more than 70 individual meetings with senior executives and recruiters (some that were additional extensions of the original connections made by my SDU coach), which, being relatively new in the UK, was exactly what I needed. At our level, ideal job opportunities don’t come along often and when they do they are not advertised, so being connected to the right people at the right time was crucial. In the end, I had my choice from three excellent job offers at once, all at higher compensation than my previous role and a strong fit with where I wanted to build my career. I also now have those networks and connections for life, and I continue to find the connections I made during that transition period to be a rich source of market knowledge and mutual support.

TIP for HR Directors: The effectiveness of the outplacement programme will influence how positively your exiting executives feel about your organisation, and their ongoing willingness to send positive signals to the market and your employees about the direction of your organisation. Choose a provider that has established networks and a strong reputation so that you can be sure they genuinely benefit from the support, and as a result have nothing but good things to say about your organisation. 

TIP for Exiting Senior Leaders: It’s not just the coach/advisor that is important, it is the whole supporting organisation and their reputation and prestige in the marketplace. Their ability to make connections for you will make the difference between being in the right place to find that next opportunity, or having it invisibly slip by.

4. Value difference 

For me it really felt like a bespoke service. Every transitioning senior executive I met found different things valuable and it was hugely beneficial to be offered such a range of high-end services including such things as personal branding support, voice coaches and style consultants, assessment and executive interview coaching, specific industry advice and networking, individual office space for working or meetings, a library of industry journals and publications, NED opportunities and board databases, support for starting your own business, and access to lawyers who help review contracts. And the SDU benefits from being part of the LHH global ICEO senior executive practice operating throughout EMEA, Asia Pacific and the Americas which is particularly useful for those looking for global roles and connections. Everyone I met found the specialised support they needed when they needed it. When I suddenly had unanticipated specialised questions along my path, I was pleased to find the resource to help me at the SDU.

TIP for HR Directors and Exiting Senior Executives: Consider the detailed offerings of an outplacement service at this level.  Senior executives need appropriate support positioned at their level, and it is impossible to guess at the outset which services will be most valuable during their transition period. Only services with a wide portfolio of credible options will be able to provide the best support going forward, regardless of what is needed along the way. 

Choose wisely

Speaking from experience, there is a right and wrong way to offer transition support for senior executives. You have the power to turn these situations into positive, impactful opportunities for both the candidate and your organisation. Some companies think the point of departure is the end of the story with their exiting executives.  However, what happens next is critically important not just to them, but to your organisation. Choose wisely and all involved will reap the rewards.


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