Life after 50

Joshua Jampol. Journalist. The Time

24 June 2003

Victims of mergers, rationalizing and downsizing, unite! You CAN get hired after 50.

You think you’re old, too expensive, too specialized, not mobile or flexible enough, or lack today’s technical savvy. You’re wrong.

You’ve heard that, at 50, you can’t change. It’s not true! Not only can you change jobs, you can change lifestyle. Say goodbye to drab routine, nine-to-five drudgery, the same traffic jams morning and night! Now you can skip from one firm to another like a stone on a lake. For the mobile and flexible, this market is wide open – provided you have the experience, of course.

Your new job will be “restructurer,” “interim manager” or “transition manager.” You run a company for a short time, usually trying to turn it around. You have something like one year to do it in. One glance at the newspapers will tell you that more and more firms are looking for the quick fix today. Investors with money in surviving dotcom startups are particularly eager to unearth experienced managers who can repair the firm after a resale. They often prefer to freeze hiring and wait out a downturn by recruiting the short-term company doctor.

So the miserable economic climate has a bright side for you! The sun is shining for interim headhunters, too; many make millions chasing down transition bosses. One French firm receives 50 resumes a week, and hires two managers a year.

The typical profile? Senior executive with 10 years on boards, high energy, good people skills, financial independence (some millionaires do it just for the buzz it gives them). And courage. You must like a challenge. You expose yourself to risks to prove your worth, repeatedly. With a profile like that, it’s no wonder many interim headhunters also want a bit of humility as well.

Poor results are not the only reason you are called. Many transition managers are recruited due to sudden departure, illness or death.

Into the sunset

This high-profile, high-pressure job is like the lone cowboy in the Old West: you ride into town, clean it up, then ride out again. But you needn’t be Gary Cooper. No charisma required! The firm in trouble even expects you to fire employees! Some personnel see you as the last hope, but more often they hate you: you’re the henchman, the soldier of fortune with no knowledge of or interest in company culture.

So be prepared for rejection. If staff feel the company is doomed, they’ll refuse to talk to you. You might balk at the resistance you’ll inspire. “They welcomed me with knives,” recalls one. “A real hornet’s nest,” says another. Yet successful interim managers find ways to knit together teams they haven’t put together. Diplomacy, working late with teams, and a big physical presence can help.

You shouldn’t mind the hostility, really. You’re there to do the dirty work – and to get richly rewarded for it! Your salary will be equal to any director-general’s. Certain headhunters add a bonus that varies with results. This can be anywhere from 50 to 150 percent tacked on. But you must be effective from day one, since you won’t be there long.

Since you’re supposed to be a top manager, shareholders and personnel will expect immediate results. Don’t be tempted to paper over the cracks in the enterprise. Just because you’re short-term doesn’t mean your impact will be.

But be mindful that if shareholders don’t like you, your status as luxury temp can work against you. In some countries they can boot you out on the spot. Check your local or national legislation. Ask your headhunters if contracts include two week’s notice if the deal doesn’t work out. Some recruiting outfits will make you part of the permanent staff; others, like Boyden in the U.K., (who call themselves “headleasers”) will keep you as part of their stables, and dole out temporary work.

Interim managers originated in the Netherlands in the 1970s, then came to Britain in the ‘80s. Also called head-renting, up-market temping or just-in-time researching, the process is cheaper for companies than consulting, and more strategic. Some even think it will mean the end of the consulting business.

[*D Recruiting a leader from outside *]

On the other hand, recruiting a leader from outside to right the ship in rough seas can be tough for an enterprise. Many have done it lately. But it is risky. According to a Booz Allen Hamilton study, some external white knights drive the share price up, others don’t.

The study looked at return on investment for the duration of reigns of many CEOs, both internally groomed and parachuted from without. It found that outsiders tend to be sprinters more than distance-runners. During the first half of their tenure, average performance was 7 percentage points higher than home-grown leaders – mainly because they inaugurated change. But during the second half of their leadership period, ROI was 6 points below internally bred CEOs. As a consequence, the study reported that presidents brought in from outside were let go more often, on average three years earlier than others.

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