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How old is 50?

Just what does it take to land a financial executive's job if you're passed the 50-year mark?

"Fifty isn't old if you're a tree," Proclaims the t-shirt one financial executive got for his recent birthday.

But is 50 old if you're a CFO who's been merged or downsized out of a job? While you may still think of yourself as a sapling, potential employers may be counting your rings. But if you're willing to grow, you might just flourish.

David R. Chyla, executive vice president of the Chicago-based DHI International, one of the nation's top 10 executive search firms, says, "Today, there are more opportunities for mature executives. But, now, it's up to the executives to show more career flexibility. Opportunities lie with smaller, newer, fledgling organizations that may want a senior person to take them public, for example. One relatively hot area is the temporary executive business. Some company may need a CFO for a particular project. You can bring in talent they couldn't afford otherwise. There are meaningful kinds of things to do but not necessarily in a straight line [from one's previous position]."

Richard Fredericks (not his real name) is a reallife example. At age 45, he was one of the few who stayed on in a midwestern company after a merger with a much larger corporation in 1989, and went on to head a major profit center for the new parent. After four grueling years of trans-Atlantic moves and unpalatable office politics, he says, "I negotiated my parting but the initiative came from my employer." He spent a year and a half as a consultant in Asia, then accepted an offer from an old friend to join a well-established family firm.

"My job today has less scope, but I like the people I work with and I'm respected. The title is not important any more. The people I'm doing it for, the people I'm doing it with and how I'm measured and regarded are what's important. When you're 50 or 55 years old, if you're honest about it, you know you're not going to be president of any Fortune 500 company. I'm confident about what I can do for this company. Once you realize that, a lot of peace can come to you."

On the other side of the coin, Loretta Geis, Financial Executives Institute's manager of national career services, says, "CFOs in the 47 to 57 age range are having a hard time getting jobs. CFOs over 57 are not being hired. I see this across the board; I think it's global."

She suggests you resist the temptation to take time off to lick your wounds. "It's a shock to their systems," she says of pink-slip recipients. "These people are used to being employed. They've been sought after within their companies. But taking time off doesn't help their search. If an applicant gets a job within the first six months, there's no difference whether that person is over 50 or under 50. If it takes more than six months, there's a significant difference. Of the people I work with who took more than one year [to find a new position], 72 percent were over 50."

But Fredericks, who says he took about a year to land his current job, disagrees with her timetable. He says, "I would pause for a long time. Any time I've been looking for a job, I've always been in a hurry to get one. You lose the ability to ask, 'What do I really want to do?' Now I have a job I'm fully in command of. I like to attend classes, do private investing. I didn't have time for that before."

Whether your choice is to step back or forge ahead, identify your experience and marketable skills. "Many older CFOs come from large corporations where they've been for many years," Geis says. "They were very valuable in the company they grew up in and entrenched in that corporate culture." But once your experience is on paper, you may be surprised to see just what you can do.

Packaging Your Beans

Then, as Dave Chyla suggests, branch out. Today, CEOs aren't looking for people who just know how to count beans. They want you to be able to cook them, package them, motivate others to eat them and then publish the recipe on the company's website. So, he says, "Think of as broad a picture as you possibly can. Don't think what you did in the past is what you have to do in the future. Just be flexible, keep your eyes open and don't summarily dismiss something because it isn't familiar."

Gordon Grand III, managing director of Russell Reynolds Associates in New York, told a group at FEI's 66th annual conference in October, "CEOs tell me, 'I'm not looking for a financial officer. I'm looking for a well-grounded, international executive who happens to have good financial experience. Find me a leader. I'm looking for a business partner.'"

To be competitive, whether you're 58 or 38, Grand says, you have to be a financial visionary and planner who can raise a company's visibility, inspire people and strategize, while also being a catalyst for change, a role model and an effective communicator.

Chyla agrees. "You need the ability to show flexibility," he adds. "You need interpersonal, mentoring and counseling skills to deal at a variety of levels within an organization and help people grow." CEOs, he thinks, want "people who are more willing to sit down eyeball-to-eyeball, and honestly say, 'I enjoy seeing people grow.'"

In his case, Fredericks says, "I'm one of the older people on the current management team. I'm also one of the people who has worked somewhere else, so I can offer insights. I'm not a mentor, but I'm a sounding board."

So what do you do if you're, shall we say, lackluster in some of these areas? Loretta Gels advises her clients to get one or more consulting jobs, as Fredericks did, to acquire or hone a potpourri of skills.

"A company that's priming a young person to be CFO might bring in an older person for maybe a five-year stint," she says. "Experiences in mergers and acquisitions, IPOs, information technology and Wall Street contacts are all valuable now."

Chyla adds that you have to be someone who "can deal with a CEO who may be 20 years your junior, so you have to have a positive attitude and be able to fit in. You're someone who's not out to prove anything to anyone but who has a wealth of knowledge and treats others with sensitivity so good relationships can be built."

Once you've identified and sharpened your skills, notes Andy O'Connor of O'Connor Associates, an executive outplacement firm in Parsippany, New Jersey, you have to find an organization "that needs your expertise and values your experience."

Part of the job search process, he says, is "networking to match up with an organization that's not afraid to take on someone older. Talk to as many people as possible to find out companies' needs. The Internet, search firms and classifieds are useful, but networking and using the organizations you belong to are key."

Grand, who receives about 150 resumes a week, suggests you add a "deal sheet" to yours, so interviewers know at a glance where your experience and strengths lie.

Confidence Is Key

When you've landed an interview, O'Connor says, planning and preparation will pay off. The same advice holds true when you're looking for a new job at 55 as when you were looking at 40: "Remember that you've been selected because you fit the basic criteria [for the position]. Now you have to see if the corporate culture and fit are correct for you. Do your homework on the company. Be well prepared. Know about the company, the position and the person you'd be reporting to. Know what questions will be asked of you. Coming across as confident is key. Ask the interviewer if you've answered all his questions, what the next step is, and whether or not you would fit in their plans."

Richard Fredericks, who has had to reposition himself three times since the early 1980s, advises, "Take a job you know you can do. Then take time to do other things you enjoy."

As another t-shirt so wisely says, "Bloom where you are planted."

Ms. Carol Lippert Gray is a freelance writer based in Morristown, New Jersey.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Financial Executives International
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:career development in the financial services industry
Author:Gray, Carol Lippert
Publication:Financial Executive
Date:Mar 1, 1998
Words:1406
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