Six tips for unemployed executives

There is no shame in being unemployed. While this can sound like hollow encouragement to executives who are out of work, as a search consultant I believe it's true. In many industries, executive turnover is at an all-time high and being out of work hardly raises a lot of eyebrows or concerns. In health care – in which I work most — CEO turnover jumped to 20 percent in 2013, meaning one in five chief executives left their posts in the calendar year. A good portion of those are CEOs who were let go and thus joined the ranks of the unemployed.

Find job button on keyboard
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I don't mean to suggest that the stigma associated with being unemployed has completely vanished, but it has faded significantly in recent years.

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Whether or not an executive re-enters the workforce has as much to do with his or her own mindset and strategic career drive. With that in mind, here are some tips for out-of-work leaders looking for gainful and meaningful employment once again:

1. Don't let the stigma get you down. Being out of work can be deflating and frustrating, but the minute you let on that it's getting to you, employers will lose interest. Executives are expected to exhibit fortitude and resilience in the face of all sorts of adversity. Take the attitude that you're enthused about getting back to work for an organization that can really use your talents. It sounds simple, but taking time to exercise regularly will help you feel good and translate into confidence.

2. Take aim at specific employers. Have a targeted approach. Identify the five or 10 companies or organizations that are good fits for you, learn as much about them and their leadership needs as you can, and pursue them aggressively. Set up informational interviews and track open positions that arise at these firms. Don't waste too much time outside your targets. If you're in Atlanta with a family of four kids and a potential employer operates on the West Coast, ask yourself honestly if you could relocate even if the job seems like the right fit for you.

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3. Follow the money. Pursue the fast-moving firms in the high-growth segments of your industry and related fields. These are organizations who are hiring. Often as firms are ramping up they'll make room for a talented executive even if there is no well-defined position available at the moment. In health care, for example, the long-term care market is booming and organizations are scrambling to find leaders who can help them grow smartly and creatively.

4. Embrace your past. Instead of disregarding your last job (whether you left on your own or were terminated), be prepared to discuss it fully and what you took away from it. Don't try to hide anything — your potential shortcomings or failures will certainly be brought up in job interviews. Be ready to communicate that you have learned and matured from past experiences, and highlight the numerous successes you've had in your career. Trumpet your achievements and document how you've helped previous employers prosper. Let them see your passion and they will be drawn to you as a candidate.

5. Chronicle your time off. Highlight what you've been doing during the interim since your last job — consulting, freelancing, taking courses, traveling, volunteering? Make sure to position this time as having been useful and beneficial to your professional growth and readiness to get back to work.

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6. Don't look for your same job. Whether it's been one year or five since you last worked full-time, the job you left may no longer exist. Markets are changing rapidly and executive roles are evolving as technology, government regulation, global competition, continuous financial pressures, and so forth are shaping what all executives do. Be open to the possibility that the career landscape is shifting and you might need to shift with it. This may mean a sideways move or even a pay cut to get into a role that positions you well for reviving your career.

Unemployment is never easy, particularly for executives whose careers are defined mostly by successes. One's approach to handling time off work is critical, and speaks volumes to employers looking to hire.

Commentary by David Boggs, practice leader at WK Advisors – a division of the executive search firm Witt/Kieffer offering mid-level executive search consulting services. Follow the firm on Twitter @WittKieffer.

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