Downgraded in the Sky, Too
Published on June 27, 2012
As a credit union chief executive, James L. Van Arsdale used to travel frequently to big conferences and to meetings with clients. Now, more than four years after he led the acquisition of the credit union, he is an insurance agent with Mass Mutual, offering people financial advice and dealing with a life of fewer perks.
“I still travel, but it’s more in my car than by plane,” he said.
When chief executives and other high-level executives lose their positions, they also often lose the status and trappings of the old job. And travel is a part of that. Gone are the days of flying off to Asia or Europe on business or hopping from one American city to another, often traveling in the front of the plane.
Mr. Van Arsdale, 57, was one of the lucky ones who made a relatively soft landing. With the economy still in the doldrums, other former chief executives are having trouble getting another top post.
“Life changes,” said a 54-year-old former chief executive in the New York area, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was still searching for another executive position. “You’re not going out to lunches and dinners with brokers and salespeople. You don’t have the same expense account, and travel is all part and parcel of that.”
He said he was still trying to get used to a different pace since leaving his position last October. “I’ve never been unemployed in my life. To go through this process is certainly an adjustment,” he said. After a change in management, “I didn’t fit with the game plan. I was looking to leave and they just got to me first.”
He says he now turns to Priceline.com when he has to book travel for himself or a family member. “Travel changes quite a bit. If you’re not working, you’re not going on business trips. My car’s getting more of a workout. Travel and entertainment is just personal, children going to and from college.”
Whether chief executives retire or are pushed out, their lives change in many ways. “A lot of them do worry about being able to maintain the standard of living that they had,” said Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean of executive programs and the Lester Crown Professor in the Practice of Management at the Yale School of Management. He is the author of “The Hero’s Farewell,” a study of chief executive succession, and a co-author of “Firing Back,” a study on leadership resilience in the face of adversity.
Top managers, chief executives in particular, live a different life from most others in the workplace, Professor Sonnenfeld said. “The logistics of travel and events are things that they just didn’t have to contend with anymore,” he said. “They don’t know how to make their own reservations. Their life is taken up with different things. These aren’t people who aren’t working, even if they go on vacation.”
When former chief executives are thinking of setting up a meeting, he said, they wonder if people will come and whether they will stay. And their perception of themselves can be different, too. They have a “self-styled image of themselves as a hero,” Professor Sonnenfeld said. Whether they were heroic or not, “what’s important is that they saw themselves as such.” Their position and its trappings have defined their lives. “They’ve seen Paris and they don’t want to stay back at the farm anymore.”
Whether executives lose a position through circumstances or by design makes a significant difference in how they manage their lives afterward.
Bill George, who was chief executive of Medtronic, the medical device company, from 1991 to 2001, said he had agreed to take the top job for 10 years, believing that corporations need a change in leadership after that. Partly because his stepping down was planned, he landed on boards of two companies, and became a professor at Harvard Business School and the author of several books.
But not all of this happened instantaneously, Mr. George said. Though he began teaching, he said he realized he did not really know how to teach. Though he began writing, he said he realized he did not know how to do that either. Twenty publishers turned down one of his first writing efforts before he found a publisher.
“I had to become a learner,” he said.
Mr. George, who informally counsels former chief executives, recommends taking a break for a year. “You have too much to offer to just go and retire,” he said he advised.
He said it was critical to adjust to the changes. “You’re giving up all the elements of support and power,” he said. Day-to-day life is different, whether that means no longer having an assistant who makes travel arrangements, no longer using a corporate jet or not having a limousine waiting at the train station or airport or a helicopter to whisk them off to the airport.
Mary Anne Walsh, a New York executive coach who is a consultant for the Five O’Clock Club, a career coaching organization, agreed that job loss can affect the self-image of former chief executives. “We get them to change the perception of themselves.”
Mr. Van Arsdale said he was used to having a personal assistant book his travel. “It’s easy to get used to that infrastructure,” he said. He was booking his own travel at first, scheduling appointments and “processing the mail.” Now, his wife books his travel. But he still travels business class and collects his frequent-flier miles.
“It took me some time” to become used to not being a chief executive anymore, he said. “That’s when I was wrestling with, ‘How does this work out?’ ” He said he was offered another chief executive position, but that would have meant relocating to New Jersey. He said he and his wife did not want to give up the life they had built in New England.
Working with individuals rather than financial institutions “isn’t what I thought I would be doing,” Mr. Van Arsdale said. “There have been some bumps in the road and it took some time for me to feel comfortable. Not going to the major conference can be painful.”