Loneliness and Danger at the Top

In my last blog, Get Your Age Off the Table, I shared the three causes of unanticipated unemployment for workers over 50, with a big chunk of the cause being under individual control. It applies to C-levels as well, but C-levels have their own additional challenges.

The challenge for C-levels and other senior people can be that they are just like the rest of us, but their titles can lead them to believe they aren’t. They are likely to be living “large” given higher salaries and bonuses. They buy a lot of house because they can. They get busy and neglect things like their skills. Maybe they indulge more. They are aging. And unlike most of us, they have people that do things for them. The result? Their skills can be the first to decline because there is no pressure to keep them up. This senior group can also get lulled into a false sense of security that they have “made it.” Thinking that you are too secure to have the rug pulled out from under you can be one of the first signs of danger.

For the purpose of this discussion, let’s take top-level management teams at small and mid-size companies. I’ll call them Cs. If they have come to Oyster for help, they are not kicking back and enjoying early retirement. They are looking for work. Here are the challenges they face.

Outdated Skills

We all get busy and can neglect skills. It’s a little easier for Cs to slip into that habit when they have people doing things for them. I got a lesson on this early in my career and never forgot it. I was a recent graduate and in a much better job than I realized at the time. A senior vice president, who seemed quite old at the time but was probably about 40, asked me where the fax machine was. Being wise to the benefits of assisting senior people, I jumped up and said, “I’ll do it for you.” “No, I want to do it,” he said. “I should know how to do this.” I trailed him to the fax machine for back-up. And to his credit, he did do it. He dialed the number and fed the paper in. The machine beeped and whirred. As expected, the paper slowly crept out the back. But then, his executiveishness gave him away. “It’s still here,” he said, puzzled, holding the paper. I stared at him briefly as I realized that he really thought the paper was supposed to go somewhere. I checked the status screen and said softly, “It went. Um… The paper doesn’t actually go anywhere.”

We can laugh and say we’d never do something like that. But are you good at the basics? If your assistant is out, can you be self-sufficient? Can you choose a conference room as an Outlook resource and not an attendee, thereby not causing an important meeting to unravel? Are you still an ace at analysis in Excel in the most recent version? Older versions don’t count. Is your terminology current? Can you have a beer and sincere conversation with a group of younger employees and not come off like a presidential candidate trying to look hip? Your answers to all of these need to be yes.

The Numbers Game

The higher up you go, the fewer the positions there are. The higher your pay, the number drops. The higher your title, the number drops. Most organizations are still a triangle. And not that many positions fit in the top of a triangle. No matter how talented someone feels he or she is, the odds are good that there is someone behind you who is equally capable, cheaper, and who would be thrilled to have a promotion. That’s the numbers game. The challenge for coaches is to help the Cs think more broadly about what they are good at and what they have done, and to be open to positions with titles of less distinction or creative options like consulting and new businesses. Some of you may shudder at this, but one of the best pieces of advice anyone ever gave me, not too long after the fax machine incident, was that there is always someone younger, smarter, and better looking coming along behind you—so know what’s behind you. Politically incorrect? Perhaps. True? Sure. Our reaction shouldn’t be to just assume age discrimination. It should be to ensure up-to-date skills and have the emotional intelligence to rethink and reimagine who we are, what we do, and the value we add, without getting stuck on a title or an exact position. It’s likely the numbers game, not just age.

Articulating Value, not Titles

Senior people frequently say to me, “I’m having a terrible time finding a job.” I can spot the problem immediately when I look at their resumes. The resumes are narrow and aimed only at executive jobs. They were CFOs and are looking only for a CFO roles. They define themselves by their titles and their seniority. Frankly, although few will acknowledge it, senior titles scare resume readers. You can’t completely avoid your title, which can be unfortunate. But you can stress your impact and value in broader terms. I suggest program management for a number of senior people, and sometimes even project management—two very common and broad titles right now.

Reasonable Salary Expectations

Here’s the killer. Some small and mid-sized Cs are making bases of $350,000 or more, good salaries by most standards. “I could come down to $300K if I need to,” they might say. “You might have to go lower,” I respond, to which they say, “I can’t do that!” I gently and respectfully have to say something to the effect of, “How is zero working for you?” I have to say this to a lot of people who were at $150K and are now at zero, too. Rethinking and reimagining our value can also mean shifting to a job with less pay—and sometimes significantly so. And the longer people are unemployed, the harder it gets. If the choice is a new business or consulting, that likely means lower pay for a few years. It’s better to get reasonable salary expectations sooner than later.

Cultural Adaptability

Whenever a C says she’s thinking about making a change, I grill her on motive, amount of research, expectations, preparedness, and the amount of “cushion” available. That’s because at the top, you have to fit the culture and meet expectations fast. It’s like merging on the highway. If you are slow and don’t get up to speed in the merge lane, people are going to honk at you in complaint. They will get irritated and pull out ahead of you. At high pay levels, there’s no learning on the job, and patience is not in abundance given the high price tag you wear. The odds of failure are higher at the top. The more junior you are, the easier it is to bounce back from a bad jump. But at the top, you can’t just flip easily to another job. I get a lot of pushback on this cultural adaptability concept. A number of people have said, “I hear you, but I’ve got this, Julie,” as though I’m worried over nothing, and then they were out of a job three months later. The message? Know how to “merge.” Plan well, understand the stage of your career, and exercise caution as you consider options.


There is a flurry of activity around Cs. Until there’s not. When there’s been an acquisition, merger, restructuring, or other change and someone ends up out of a job, it gets suddenly quiet. And the transition from flurry to quiet can be lonely for a lot of people. Be ahead of those changes to the extent possible. Read the signs carefully. But be proactive so that when you can’t be ahead of it, you know immediately what your next steps are. Keep your network active and large. Develop an infrastructure of people and connections. Don’t ever think you can stop.

I gave some classic examples in this blog, and in keeping with that I’ll end by reminding you about a classic but very relevant book. It’s Marshall Goldsmith’s awarding-winning What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. His stop list is essential for every leader and will help you maintain and grow your leadership effectiveness, extend your relevance curve, and avoid unanticipated unemployment at the top. Because it really can be lonely and dangerous there.

Contact Oyster OD for a free consultation on how we can work with you and your leadership team to increase success. Julie Nielsen is president of Oyster Organizational Development, a firm that helps organizations and individuals be wildly successful through organizational effectiveness strategies and coaching. Julie has over 30 years of experience in helping organizations and individuals succeed. 

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