Being unemployed at the C-level can be the kiss of death. Of course, I have been accused of exaggeration and hyperbole, but not in this case nor by executives in that situation. They tend to confirm that finding a new similar position can be seemingly an insurmountable challenge.

I am not referring to the nose-bleed section of CEOs that collect a king's ransom in severance after they are let go such as the CEOs of HP, Burger King and New York's Bank Mellon. They can afford to retire or buy their own company. The early (50-something or younger) CEO or C-level executive is usually not in that position. The serial CEO, CIO, CMO needs the next opportunity as much as he or she wants it.  

How do you continue to look viable after losing a C-level job and better position yourself for a new opportunity? It depends on your net worth and network. Some of the ideas suggested here require significant capital while others rely on a substantial Outlook database of connections.  Your age and geographic location can be a determining factor as well.

Obviously the ideal scenario is a job lost due to an M&A or buyout with no negativity that trails after you. The biggest pitfall with that scenario is that it happens often in a sector where acquisitions are driven by industry commoditization. Thus, executive career options are limited going forward as the positions are correspondingly eliminated as well.

And you can't count exclusively on executive search firms despite prior placements through them. Often their clients are expecting that the position be filled by a candidate who ideally matches all requirements, including current employment.  

However, if you still want skin in the game and crave the next challenge of running an organization, then here are potential strategies to pro-actively, and as triage, mitigate the damage of a lost C-level position to your career. 

Be on Boards
You can't do this soon enough in your career. Start early and at lower levels to work your way up while you pick up valuable networking contacts along the way. Don't wait to be CEO to entertain the idea of a board-level appointment. Many start-ups, and small companies seek out top executives across multiple business sectors to fill their board positions. Typically, these are paid in stock vs stipend or salary.   

Board positions are worthy to assume a greater role at the top of your CV to fill in for a current lack of employment. The network derived from it will help open doors for your next opportunity as a board member or executive.

Found Your Own Company or be a Serial CEO
Serial CEOs actually are plentiful in the world today. The magic ingredients to making that happen are an outstanding network of colleagues who help to open doors. There must be available doors to open which requires a growing not contracting sector. Lacking that, the ability to expand beyond your original sector and move into adjacent industries is crucial.

A key to staying relevant, current and therefore, employable is your willingness to expand beyond a sector comfort zone to take on challenges in affinity and tangential sectors. The other piece is the ability to build a case and sell yourself into that sector when you don't have the luxury to buy your way in.

Try Politics
Running for office or actively working to elect a successful candidate can provide new career stability. You may luck out get elected and be on a secure career track for at least the duration of the elected term.

At the minimum, the visibility and connections you will have gained from the effort may enable a government appointment at the state or federal level to head up a commission, committee, or even be a diplomatic envoy. Once any kind of government experience is secured by appointment or election, leveraging that back to the business world is an easy step. Think Al Gore.

Start an NGO
During the crash, a top executive founded a weekly lunch group for fellow unemployed executives to keep him company.  Attendance grew with a corresponding website, e-groups, corporate sponsorship and incorporation. He is now the salaried executive director of this well-established NGO. Of course it is not the money he had before but it fits his situation in life now.  Another colleague readily tells the story of how she founded a women's  professional association during the downturn that gave her a great network, and helped  keep her niche search firm going.

Become a  Philanthropist
If you leave with a small golden nest egg, then setting up a little foundation as a replica to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation would be in order. Beginning with your own money can be a small capitalization when you reach out to the likes of a Warren Buffet-types to support the endeavor. This would not only do good in the world but provide job security indefinitely for you as the head of the foundation.

Be an Author
You don't actually have to write the book as ghost writers have a purpose in life. But, authoring a topic that both is timely, attention-getting, and paves the way for a new opportunity is a good way to spend time during a search. Book tours have an amazing effect on leveraging your network, creating visibility and building credibility. You become an instant thought leader and can at least raise substantial consulting and presentation fees.

There is no easy panacea to unemployment at the C-level. The search for a new opportunity is long, with available openings less abundant, and the competition fierce. It demands of you the openness and flexibility to try new strategies and tactics, and  the willingness to sometimes put aside your ego to think beyond titles.


Patti WPatti Wilsonilson of BlueSteps Executive Career Services (BECS) has years of experience coaching Fortune 500 and start-up executives on how to optimize their careers and successfully transition to new opportunities. Visit Patti Wilson's blog at


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