This is a cover story I wrote for BC Business magazine. The article appeared January 2004.
Pinkslipped CEOs draw upon their skills to re-invent themselves
The print and broadcast media regularly feature stories of corporate downsizing with the CEO announcing so many hundreds to be cut from the payroll. But once in while the boss gets his or her walking papers as well. Once in a while the head honcho who grew the company from scratch into a thriving enterprise gets shown the door by the board. And, as anyone who has lost a treasured position knows, the loss can be personally devastating. BC Business wanted to know what it was like to be a high profile CEO who was fired. We called some of the bright lights in B.C. spanning politics, government corporation, high tech, health, sports and education to find out what happened to them, what they’re doing now and how they got back in the game. In many cases we found these executives have drawn upon their many skills and successfully launched themselves in a new direction. They spoke candidly on their career change, what is was like to leave their previous jobs and offered us their first hand advice on getting back to work.
After six years as the Vancouver Canucks President and General Manager, Brian Burke lost his job this spring after the team failed to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals. Update TK.
What are you doing now?
Just doing what every unemployed executive says he’s doing: I’m consulting. I’ve been doing some public speaking and I did some media work for TSN at the draft.
Have you had any job offers?
I’ve been approached. It’s been flattering because I’ve been offered some opportunities on the pure business side where people have watched my performance, respected the business man in me and I’ve received some offers that way. I’ve received one offer to practice law but I’m trying to sort through those things.
If you want to become a G.M. you’ve got to wait. There are no vacancies. That part is easy. You wait. I don’t think anyone is going to hire a GM until they start playing again and no one knows when that’s going to be. So that one, you just got to wait it out.
Do you miss your old job?
I don’t miss the spotlight that comes with the job. It’s not something I ever craved. It’s part of the job and you have to handle it but that’s not why I got into this business. As I’ve told other people, at the start of each year, if they said you’ve got to be anonymous and invisible so your team can win the championship, I’d be “O.K. Where can I sign up?” So that part I don’t miss.
People have been wonderful in Vancouver. People have been so kind. People you meet on the street: “Geez. We’re sorry to hear the news and we wish you luck,” and, you know, “This is wrong.” So people have been great.
I’m just trying to sort out what’s next. It’ll be some time before a GM job opens up, and then you hope you’re the top candidate. A lot of people want to be a GM
In the meantime I’ve been approached about doing some media work. I did some work for TSN - which I enjoyed – and by some other media outlets in Canada as well. So I’m trying to sort through that. I might do something in the media between jobs.
Was it a surprise to be fired?
It was no surprise to Jennifer, my wife, and I. We feel the decision was made back in October. So despite what anyone at Orca says to the contrary, we believe that this decision was made a long time ago and we expected this.
But it doesn’t matter how prepared you are, it’s still a kick in the ass. I’d never been fired before. Well, technically, I still haven’t been fired. They just announced they weren’t renewing my contract. No matter how prepared you are, no matter how much you expect it, it’s still a big league kick in the ass, and it was for us too.
The key is that you hope that what you accomplished in your prior life and your reputation will buy you another opportunity. That’s what you hope, and then you have to wait and see if that’s true.
Robert Bakshi was the founder and president of Surrey-based Silent Witness, a leading provider of video monitoring technology. The company was acquired by Honeywell International in November 2001 in a friendly takeover. Bakshi was dismissed shortly thereafter and is now pursuing a wrongful dismissal suit against Honeywell.
What are you up to now?
I’m doing real estate development in Calgary. That’s my new passion now. I want to learn a totally different industry, which is real estate development. So I’ve bought about 3 1/2 acres of commercial land and I intend to put in retail building over the next two or three years.
What happened at Silent Witness?
I started Silent Witness back in 1985. So when Honeywell bought it I was the president, CEO and one of the largest shareholders. They had offered me a position to run the global video business and of course after about a month, there was a change, whatever, they didn’t want me anymore and they sent me home.
How did you feel when Honeywell fired you?
You’re getting into a soft spot now. (My initial feeling) was disbelief. You feel that your trust has been betrayed. You know they promise one thing and they buy the company and they gave me a position and all of a sudden, of course, I don’t have a position. So you feel like you’ve been taken advantage of.
What’s the first thing you did?
I saw my lawyers and initiated a wrongful dismissal lawsuit, which is in process now.
I’m more concerned about my employees: 165 employees in three countries, and now they’re down to about 60 I think.
The sun will shine the following morning as well. At first it seems like the end of the world. You are, of course, depressed and questioning yourself and questioning other people’s motives. But you get over that and find life is still good and worth living. New opportunities will come. For example, I’m involved in so many things now, and I didn’t think I would have the opportunity to do that if … still working 9 to 5.
Former Vancouver Police Chief Bruce Chambers was fired by the police board in 1999 after two years into a three-year contract. Today, Chambers is the regional director for the British Columbia Ambulance Service out of Prince George.
What happened after you got fired?
After I left Vancouver, I retired. I was retired for four years. And it just happened one day, I was looking on a website and they were looking for someone, and I said that’s interesting. I sent in my resume and I ended up being successful.
Was finding a new job tough?
I guess the biggest challenge was just for me to convince the new employer was that my skills were transferable: “Okay, after many years in police service, how is that relevant to what we’re doing.” So that was the challenge for me.
I was (chief of police) on a contract. Part of my contract said that they had to let me know within a year of the end of the contract if they were going to renew, and they told me they weren’t going to renew so we parted ways.
It was disappointing (not to have my contract extended) because I thought there was work that wasn’t complete. It was disappointing.
I think probably I should have spoken to some professional in the consulting business. I didn’t get any of that (advice) when I left and I didn’t seek any. I think it might have helped me focus on how to address that issue of transferable skills. Because I think that many people have a perception of the police as a police officer and maybe not the fact that you were a general manager or CEO for those years.
Glen Clark resigned as B.C. premier in August 1999, a day after the release of a court document alleging he used his influence to help a friend get a lucrative casino license. Clark is now president of Jim Pattison’s The News Group Canada, a magazine wholesaler.
How did you get your new job?
Mr. Pattison offered the job to me. You may recall he hired me initially as the British Columbia manager of the Pattison Sign Group, which makes illuminated signs. About a year and a half later I became vice-president of the Pattison Sign Group, responsible for western Canada.
And then a little more than a year after that, he asked me if I would move to another company, which was The News Group, and take on the presidency of that company. So I did that. So, I’ve been with Jimmy for about three years and this is, I guess, my third position.
Was it difficult to leave your job as premier?
In some ways, there’s similarities between all these positions (including the premiership of the province.) It might sound funny, but it’s all about teamwork, leadership and working with people and relationships.
The difference is of course, in the public sector and the government, you’re operating in a fish bowl with a very difficult media environment in British Columbia. People are looking through your garbage, you know, literally.
I had a very difficult year or so there so it wasn’t as hard to leave as it might have been otherwise. But each move you make, I won’t say difficult, but it comes with its own challenge. I’ve been very privileged to be able to move around between jobs.
I have to say each move for me personally has actually been wonderful because I’ve had the opportunity to learn a new position and you realize that each of these positions lets you grow as a person, develop and learn.
Did you face any particular challenges finding your new position as a former politician?
For an NDP politician, I think it’s harder. I think this is a problem for our province actually. This works just as strong, or equally stronger with the current government’s relationships with the trade union movement or environmental movement. Those solitudes are pretty real in British Columbia and I think a problem for it.
So, in the case of being an NDP Premier I think it’s more difficult to move into the business sector because you haven’t developed those business relationships. And there’s a certain amount of hostility, rightly or wrongly, built up, so I was extremely fortunate that Mr. Pattison chose to offer me a job.
My only advice is that never forget that everybody that you come into contact with, could potentially be your employer. In other words, there’s no relationship you have in your current job that isn’t potentially important, so you’ve got to treat people well, and listen carefully to what they say. Work hard because at the end of the day, the world is moving very fast and positions move very fast, so there’s tremendous opportunity there. So you should remember that sometimes today’s competitor is your employer tomorrow.
UBC president Martha Piper announced in March, 2004 that the North Kelowna Campus of Okanagan University College was to become the new University of British Columbia (Okanagan). Despite her many successes of guiding OUC through a period of growth and positive change, the current OUC president Katy Bindon was summarily dismissed.
What are you doing now?
I am a tenured professor of history. So it’s a little different in the university sector because you usually have your academic position as well as your administrative position. I had administrative leave coming to me anyways so I’m working on a book now that I haven’t been able to work on for the eight years I’ve been here. So that’s good; it’s good for you mind and good for your head. And of course, OUC was 24/7 so I’m learning how to have a life again.
How do you go about getting a new job?
There are 3 or 4 headhunters in the university business and they connect with you and are interested to know that you’re there. Every so often they call you and ask you if you’re interested in this, that or the other thing. So that’s probably pretty standard, right? They’ve contacted me and I’ve let them know I’m no longer president here.
How tough was it when you first let go as head of an organization you had grown and shaped?
I’ve been most interested in speaking with a number of colleagues who’ve been through a similar thing and yeah, when you’re working at 150% and it all drops off, it’s quite shocking. I think it’s just a huge stress. But what you do is get on with other stuff.
It was very tough (to leave the institution). But the other thing is that a lot of the goals (of UBC Okanagan) are the goals that we had outlined as being necessary for (OUC) and the region. So, on the other hand, you look at this and say, ‘yeah, okay.” So there’s a number of ways that things can work.
I think one of the things in the university is that you gain a very deep and diverse experience as an administrator. On the other hand, I think it’s hard to cross sectors. A lot of the people don’t hold the universities in high regard in business terms these days.
What challenges do you think as a former university president does that present in your job search?
I think it’s fair to say that there’s an assumption that public institutions are not just as tightly managed as private sector. I don’t care who you are; if you don’t have the resources, you can’t sustain the programming.
It’s like anything in your life. You’ve got to look back at what you’ve accomplished and feel proud of those. I guess it’s a bit like that old aphorism, God grant me the wisdom…I think anyone who’s been in an intense institution-building capacity exercise, when it works as well as what we did here works, you’ve got to take the good stuff and say, ‘Wow. Look at what I’ve learned.”
And the other thing is that no one is immune from the fact that we all have many careers these days. There are things really exciting about that. And once you get on with it, it just ends being the next stage.
Elisabeth Riley lost her position as president of Children's & Women's Health Centre of British Columbia in 2002 in an organizational reshuffle. After 13 months between jobs she was hired last year as Dean of Health Sciences at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. She recently launched Navahealth, a company that helps patients navigate through the maze of their medical care.
How did you get your new job?
Actually it was through networking plus seeing the announcement in the paper and contacting the recruitment agency. And the recruitment agency for BCIT, I had previously interviewed with them and they had my C.V.
The way it works generally, at the executive level, is you approach the various search firms that are searching in your area of interest. I was using Providence. It was somebody I knew from before. She had come to me as a recruiter trying to sell her services to me when I was formerly CEO of Women’s. So, you know people and you contact them and let them know you’re in the job market.
Was it difficult for you to get another job?
When anyone in a senior position has lost their position for whatever reason – and although this was definitely not for cause, my position was eliminated – it makes it difficult to move around within the same business. It’s unlikely for you to get hired back into the same business where you’ve previously been let go at a senior level.
And I was told this by people in the business sector, not the public sector. But I think it’s the still rule of thumb in the public sector as well. If you’re in a senior position it’s difficult to get back with the same employer. Because they paid you severance, let’s face it. Because if they paid you to go away, it’s difficult for them to rehire you later.
What did you do in your year off?
I used it as a sabbatical, is the way that I would word it. I haven’t taken any time off in my thirty-year career except for normal absences. I’ve never been in between jobs before so I used it as a time to refresh myself and to regenerate and rejuvenate and then to begin my process of thinking about my career. And I invested heavily in the time it took to go through the services that were provided which involved really reflecting on your career, on what you enjoy doing and having you really identify what you would like to do next, and what you were good at. So I really enjoyed that process. It was very helpful and I felt very privileged to have it offered as part of the severance package.
What was it like to lose your previous job?
Frankly, with reflection, I don’t care how (the lay-off) is done, it’s going to be hard. It’s hard because it’s not something you choose. When you choose to move on, it’s a totally different thing: You’re in control, you’re in the driver’s seat. And what I did find, it’s extremely different. Because, I’ve been in the position, all my life, where every single job I applied for, I got.
So when you’re in the situation where you’re unemployed and you’re applying, it’s totally different. Then you saying, ‘I’d like to take a look at this job but I don’t know if I really want it or if I’m a fit, but I’d like to explore it.’ You’re coming at it from a very different angle.
Take the time between jobs. Just about all of my colleagues including Murray Martin and Bob Smith and many others who have gone through it have all advised me: Take the time. And those who hadn’t, have kind of regretted it. It’s easy to say, I’ll just jump in and take the first thing that comes along. Take the time and let the trauma and the impact of the job change settle in before you make a major decision.
Barry Jinks was formerly head of Spectrum Signal Processing, a position he held for 10 years while he grew the company from $1 million to $40 million in annual sales. He says he and the board of Spectrum agreed to a parting of ways. Jinks is now CEO of Colligo Networks of Vancouver.
How did you come to leave your old job?
It became pretty obvious that I was better suited and personally enjoyed much more the small company in start-up phase than operational phase. It was pretty apparent as well that the company needed to get some new blood in there.
What’s the first thing you did after leaving Spectrum?
I went out and started a new company, Colligo Networks - back to the roots - and started building it up from there. What I did was, I had learned a lot about different technologies when I was at
Spectrum. We had lots of different customers in different markets. The one area that I thought was about to explode was wireless.
How did you start the business?
We raised venture capital from Growth Work Capital and the Business Development Bank of Canada and we had quite a few local relatively high profile angels involved like Paul Lee from Electronic Arts. Sierra Wireless made an investment in the company.
What advantage did your background provide?
Actually, one of the things we did at Spectrum, and was quite instrumental in the early success of the company, was we spent most of our effort landing customers and bringing in very little venture capital in the process so by the time the company was on its feet we had a really good understanding of what the market was looking for.
We did the same thing at Colligo. We actually built the company based on our relationship that we had established with Price Waterhouse Cooper and today every auditor at PWC in the top 20 countries of the world uses our software.
I think it depends on your skill set. Again the realization that I and the board had was that I was much more comfortable in a start-up role. That’s where my talents are. For me it made sense to go out and start another company.
Other guys may have different talents, They may be operationally focussed. Obviously what you want to do is assess yourself, decide on your strengths and weaknesses, and play to your strengths. Get in to a role where you can succeed and play to your strengths.
The former president of ICBC was abruptly fired this past summer after just 2 ½ years at the helm. During his term, Geer finessed a financial turnaround at the government-owned insurance company, shaping ICBC into a leaner, more efficient company and putting it back into the black. But when he disagreed with his government bosses on the future direction of the company, he was shown the door.
What are doing now?
At the moment I’m on three or four boards, and I’m choosing my options. Various bits and pieces are coming up, and I’m taking it easy and seeing what I do next.
What do you like about what you’re doing now?
I’ve not yet gotten used to getting up at eight o’clock as opposed to six.
How did you come to leave your last job?
That’s a matter for the press. I’m not allowed to say anything by contract.
What was it like for you to lose your former position?
It was difficult. It came as a complete surprise. We’d turned the company right around. Gone from a loss of $200 million to a profit this year for the first six months of over $167 million. Taken about 1800 people out of the company. Everybody was up and things were going very well. So it came as a complete surprise.
Was it hard to tell your family?
Oh, no, no, no. My wife and I talk about everything. But when you’re involved in effectively what is a quasi-political situation, you expect surprises.
What did you do in the days following your job loss?
The word was dropped at the end of May. I left ICBC June 30th. So I got myself organized. I’m not troubled by cash. That isn’t an issue.
Tell me about your current job search?
I’m not on a job search. I’m coming up on 63, although that doesn’t mean anything. I’m on three boards, which I enjoy, I’m on two or three other charity boards, so those keep me partially busy.
And I’ve had a couple of offers already of running companies which I’ve turned down.
Did losing your job as a CEO carry any stigma to it.
No, not at all. Quite the opposite. Everybody I bump into on the street keeps telling me what a wonderful job I did. So there’s no stigma attached whatsoever.
What advice do you have for other displaced CEOs?
Never look back. What is, is. Understand what you’ve learned. Understand how you’ve grown through it. Because you grow through adversity, you don’t grow through constant success. Understand internally what pleased you and displeased you. Because you’re only ever good at what you enjoy doing, in my view.
How to get ‘em back to work
Companies that lay off personnel, especially at the executive level, routinely hire outplacement services, not to find a job for the displaced but to show them how to look for one. Knowing how to find a job is a skill many CEOs lack because they spend so little time in the job market, according to Angus McPherson, a consultant for CCD Corporate and Career Development of Vancouver. “They don’t know how to network so they have to learn how to do that. They’re very good in the business world when they’re employed but they don’t how to do it for themselves,” he says.
But first, says McPherson, the task at hand is to help the executive client overcome the psychological challenge of losing his or her job. He says, “There is a range of things that they go through. First is obviously shock, followed by anger, then more shock. Especially the higher the level, they’re completely amazed that they would actually be terminated.”
Accepting the loss of a treasured position is a grieving process but given enough time, the CEO’s mental state eases with time. Says McPherson, “At this point, they begin to get resignation. They’re resigned to the fact okay I’m out of this job.” With that acceptance comes a renewed sense of purpose and vitality.
Another Vancouver outplacement agency is Maragaret J. Livingstone and Associates. Livingstone says, “Our job is to teach the individual effective job search techniques and assist them in that process so it’s everything from career planning, figuring out where they’ve been and what they’ve done and what they like and what they don’t like and what they never want to do again.” After that, the agency teaches their clients the more practical aspects of finding a new job like how to access the hidden job market
Standard services at outplacement agencies include secretarial support and individual offices where the executives can get busy, working the phone and polishing their resumes. “We find people write terrible resumes. Executives write some of the worst, because they get involved in all the details,” says Angus McPherson.
Livingstone does not believe there is a particular stigma attached to executives looking for a new job. Quoting a newspaper article she says, ‘Any stigma about executive layoffs went away about 2000 lay-offs ago. I thought that was a very good remark and in fact one that I say to our own candidates who worry about the stigma that might be out there.”
But finding an equivalent job for former company presidents can prove a real challenge. Says McPherson “We have quite a few (executives) coming through here all the time. …The higher you are on the food chain, the longer between jobs. Definitely. Because you’re looking for that much higher paying job and there’s just not many of them out there.”