Baby boomers who’ve enjoyed an uninterrupted string of successes, and have been laid off, are struggling to recapture the magic.
By Michael Winerip, a staff reporter at The New York Times.
Greg Sam, 50, has always been a rising corporate star. In his most recent job, as a vice president for Millipore, a company that services the pharmaceutical and biotech industries, Mr. Sam built a quality-oversight program from scratch into a staff of 350 working worldwide, from the corporate headquarters in Billerica, Mass., to offices in China, Japan, Ireland and France.
For this, he earned a mid-six-figure income and traveled the globe, making two dozen business trips a year. At Millipore’s 50th anniversary celebration in Puerto Rico, Mr. Sam delivered the keynote speech in Spanish. In France, he sometimes conducted business in French.
In fact, Mr. Sam was so good at what he did, he was fired.
“He came in, built us a global quality assurance program, but now that it’s in place, we don’t need a person of his skills and caliber to continue running it,” said Dr. Martin D. Madaus, the president of Millipore, who fired Mr. Sam during a round of 200 layoffs in December. “Someone with lesser expertise can do the job, because Greg essentially did such a good job.”
As Dr. Madaus explained when he visited Mr. Sam’s office to deliver the bad news, it was nothing personal. But because Mr. Sam was so highly valued until he was fired, Millipore added about $40,000 to his severance package for job placement services.
“The higher up you are,” said Dr. Madaus, whose company employs 6,000, “the longer it takes to find a new job.”
For three months, instead of going to work, Mr. Sam has come to a handsome fifth-floor office in a renovated warehouse overlooking Boston Harbor that is the headquarters of New Directions, a top-of-the-line job-search firm. As its literature says, New Directions specializes in helping unemployed “C.E.O.’s, C.O.O.’s, C.F.O.’s, C.I.O.’s” find their way back up the corporate ladder.
Situated in the heart of Boston with beautiful views; staffed by friendly professionals with advanced degrees; stocked with plenty of fresh-brewed coffee and free lunches; offering glassed-in offices for making calls, New Directions feels like an exclusive corporate retreat — except that the participants have lost their corporations.
Like Mr. Sam, most of the 85 current clients are baby boomers who’ve enjoyed an uninterrupted string of successes that have seemed almost magical, but now, in very bad times, they are struggling to recapture the magic.
Mark Gorham, a Harvard Business School grad and a former Hewlett-Packard vice president, has been unemployed for six months. At first, he said: “I sat around thinking someone will realize how great I am and call me out of the blue. Next, I figured, I’ll throw out my great résumé to search firms and someone will come knocking.”
Now he’s learning networking from Jeffrey Redmond, his personal job coach.
“Mark grew up in an age when being understated about yourself was valued,” said Mr. Redmond, a partner who has been at New Directions since its founding 23 years ago. “At 53, he has to learn to tell his story and, like a marching band, toot his own horn.”
Mr. Gorham is looking for a job using his management skills in the renewable-energy field.
“We try to work on it a little every day,” Mr. Redmond said. “Three contacts today, three tomorrow. At the end of month we have 60 people thinking about this guy who can bring all this knowledge to a growing industry.”
Mr. Gorham dreaded his first networking call in January. For weeks, he and Mr. Redmond rehearsed.
“Like a lot of senior executives, Mark was used to going on and on,” Mr. Redmond said. “He used to give speeches to thousands of people. When there was quiet, he was the one filling in the air.”
They practiced answering questions in 45 seconds.
“Jeff told me I could just talk 40 percent of the time,” Mr. Gorham said.
Mr. Redmond had him write a one-page script.
“We rehearsed to get it shorter,” Mr. Redmond said.
“Before calling,” Mr. Gorham said, “I must have rehearsed five more times at my office at home.”
THAT first call was to a colleague he hadn’t spoken with in eight years.
“I knew he’d be nice,” Mr. Gorham said. “We weren’t supposed to pick the toughest one for our first call. It went a hundred times better than I thought it would. Part of the dread was saying I didn’t have a job. I’ve never not had one. But I realized, I wasn’t calling to say, ‘Hey can you hire me.’ I basically was letting him know what’s going on and getting his advice on my plan. He was very engaged and threw out a bunch of ideas. He said, ‘Let’s get back together.’ Afterward I wondered why was I so worried.”
Mr. Redmond said in its 23 years, New Directions has served 2,400 executives and, typically, they find new positions in seven to nine months, although in a recession that could be a year.
If it is a year, Mr. Sam said his severance will cover him, but after that he would have to dip into savings.
“My frame of mind is realistic, a bit anxious,” he said. “Last night I sat with my wife and we looked at our finances. My philosophy is, be aware of it, manage it, but don’t get obsessed by it — that’s not doing myself or family any good.”
ON a recent Tuesday, Mr. Sam sat in on a seminar about LinkedIn, the online business network. Many of the men attending were dressed as they had for work, in jackets and ties. Though sitting in a room full of such bright, urbane unemployed people could be worrisome, Mr. Sam found it calming.
“When you’re at home,” he said, “you feel you’re the only one.”
He spent six hours at New Directions that day. He had his weekly meeting with his job coach, who gave him tips on cutting his résumé from five pages to three. (Too many bulleted lines like: “Performed due diligence on M & A targets and developed integration plans to extract value and support growth.”)
He met with the New Directions research director, Claire Burday, and asked her to do a search for Food and Drug Administration-regulated companies with sales over $10 million that had offices within 30 miles of places where he would like to live, including his home in Andover, Mass., and his cabin in Vermont.
He spoke with the staff psychologist, Dr. William Winn, who’d given him a battery of tests, and for several hours interviewed him to make sure he was suited for the jobs he’s seeking.
Dr. Winn concluded that it wouldn’t be wise for Mr. Sam to take a position that would focus solely on what’s wrong with a company. Mr. Sam is a builder who needs to be involved in fixing what’s wrong, Dr. Winn noted.
Indeed, asked what he missed about his old job, Mr. Sam said, “There was still plenty of opportunity to improve the company.”
Later, sitting in one of those glassed-in offices, a mob of gulls hovering outside his window, Mr. Sam checked his BlackBerry.
“A call last night from Millipore,” he said softly. “More layoffs. Two directors who worked for me were let go.”