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Perhaps the only task harder than reaching a C-level position in the first place is recapturing that rank after you’ve had to step down a rung on the corporate ladder. Yet that’s the dilemma many executives have faced in their careers and usually not by choice.

How did this happen to me?

One or more factors probably play a key part in this situation, including:

  • Your company has closed for reasons beyond your control.
  • Another company acquired yours, and your position drew the short straw.
  • Your management approach clashed with the executive board’s views, and you were invited to seek a new opportunity elsewhere.

As long as you weren’t fired “for cause,” you don’t need to view your departure as a black mark on your record. However, that’s not to say you don’t have reason for concern.

find_c_suite_jobSo what do I do now?

To start with, the maxim that it’s easier to find a new job when you already have one is too often true. That said, a natural decision is to look for another position at or very close to your previous one. However, if your best efforts in that direction don’t pan out, you might reluctantly lower your sights to pursue a step-down role. You will undoubtedly do that with the hope that you’ll eventually have another crack at the C-suite.

At that point the question naturally arises, “What am I going to say when employers ask why I’ve held a lower-level position for the past two years?”

This issue really consists of two aspects in the minds of potential employers: (1) wondering why you’re no longer at the C-level and (2) concern that you might be out of touch with what it takes to operate with peak effectiveness in such a role.

One definite “Don’t” and a few “Do’s”

An approach that certainly won’t work in your favor is to let yourself feel or act defensively about the choice you made. It’s doubtful that any company will want to hire a defensive person for their C-level position, so however difficult it might be for you, it’s essential to project a calm, non-defensive attitude that doesn’t suggest you’re carrying around a load of negative baggage.

You could take several actions to improve your odds of success, from the time you leave your previous position until the time you start the process of trying to regain that level. Those actions could include:

  • Make your best effort to leave your old company on good terms—don’t burn any bridges, no matter how disappointed or angry you might be or how justified that reaction might seem.
  • Maintain active contact with the people in your professional network (both before and after accepting the position you now hold), but don’t overwork them. You might want their help later on.
  • Find a way to present your step-down position as a pragmatic decision, made because you’re not only a determined doer, but also a realist and can accept the necessity for short-term choices that aren’t the end of the road.
  • Look for and keep track of the opportunities you’ve had in your current position to make a distinct and substantial contribution to the company’s success in that role—preferably in ways that favorably affect operations beyond the limits of your defined area of responsibility. That’s positive “baggage” that turns you into a potential asset rather than a liability.
  • Stay current on critical events and trends in your industry and related areas, so you can demonstrate to prospective employers that you have an up-to-date grasp of essentials and can move ahead rapidly once hired, particularly if the employers are facing a crunch situation.

And always keep in mind that if you want a company to make you an offer you can’t (and wouldn’t want to) refuse, you need to present them with a C-level candidate they’d be crazy not to hire.

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