Transform outplacement into opportunity

My thanks for the very significant input to this article by my good friend, Karen Templeton, who was a former outplacement consultant for Challenger, Gray and Christmas Inc. in Chicago.

Part 1: The Dismissal

He was vice president of industrial engineering for a mid-size Milwaukee manufacturing business, and we’ll call him Larry Johns. He started as an apprentice 30 years ago, and at age 55, was enjoying the fruits of his labors. Since 2008, however, business had been tough. Typical recession scenario: revenues were flat, and gross margins were declining quickly.

Consultants were brought into the $150 million company to institute lean manufacturing processes. Most of their communications were with the CEO and the senior vice president of manufacturing. Strangely, Larry was not a part of those discussions like he always had been with outside consultants.

He was working 12-hour days. He was overstressed with a multitude of industrial engineering cost savings initiatives.

Then he started noticing strange things.

One of his subordinates asked him what he thought about the email discussing the potential new warehouse inventory accounting protocol. He had never seen the email. Then there was a lean manufacturing meeting between the outside consultants and several members of upper management. He wasn’t invited.

He was shocked when it happened.

It was 7:30 a.m. Monday. The CEO used the intra-company Internet and asked Larry to come to his office as soon as possible. Larry grabbed a yellow pad and headed down the long corridor.

He greeted the CEO’s administrative assistant, who looked stern. He walked in and saw a stranger seated in a corner chair, along with Bill, the vice president of human resources. The CEO asked him to sit down.

“Larry, based upon our new lean manufacturing approach, your position has been eliminated, effective immediately,” the CEO said. “Mr. Cummings is an outplacement expert. He will work with you through the transition. We have retained Mr. Cummings because of your great contributions to our company over the years. He will help you remove your personal items from your office. Bill has all the information you will need regarding your severance, unused benefits, health care, etc. I’m sorry. The board’s decision is final.”

Larry was stunned. All he really heard from the conversation was that he was fired. His ears were ringing and he stared into empty space in disbelief. He felt a light tap on his shoulder.

“Larry, I’m Bob Cummings. Let’s take a walk.”

They walked to a nearby conference room, and Bill joined them, holding paperwork that pertained to the dismissal and the severance package. Bill told him that he could take it home, review it, accept it or reject it, and return it. He also pointed out that after signing the termination papers, Larry still had a window of time to change his mind.

After Bill left the room, Bob Cummings took over. He explained softly and slowly that he and his firm would be with Larry from now through the educational, counseling and preparation process until he gets his next job.

For now, he told Larry, they needed to clean out his office, and set a time when they would meet for their first outplacement orientation session on Tuesday, at the outplacement firm’s local Milwaukee office. Larry nodded, and all he said was, “I don’t understand why…30 years.”

Part 2: The Opportunity

On Tuesday morning, the two met for the first outplacement orientation session. Bob let Larry vent, which, surprisingly, he doesn’t do. Instead, he said he’s ready to get on with it, and that his wife of 35 years is very supportive. They hadn’t told the kids yet.

“This will be the toughest effort you have probably experienced in the last 30 years,” Bob said. “But if you succeed in following our game plan, I can almost assure you that at the end of six months, you will be happy with a new employer.”

“First things first,” Bob said.

He told Larry to take a personal inventory of his life for the past 30 years. It must include a detailed, introspective and retrospective appraisal of his accomplishments, his positions held, and management responsibilities. It should include any failures or oversights that he would reverse if he had a second chance.

Bob said he’d be available to review Larry’s assessment and provide any support needed. He pointed out that once this assignment is done, Larry would select a basic resume template, and start working on it. He and Bob would meet again, and, of course, Bob would be available to answer any questions Larry had.

Bob explained the next step. Larry will again return to the Milwaukee office after he has completed his assessment, selected a template, and started a rough draft of his resume. He can determine a schedule when he can work with another outplacement professional, a “tutor,” during those days he’s at the outplacement firm’s main office in Chicago.

Larry put his heart and soul into his assignment, and his wife supplied valuable input. He finished all the work in three weeks. He talked with Bob weekly and asked questions dealing mostly with the content for the resume.

Chicago was his next step, where he met his new “one-on-one” consultant, Mary. She escorted him to a private room and explained that she will be conducting a “baseline” interview, just to get a feel for how Larry will handle job interviews under some stress.

As expected, some of his answers were OK. But many of them only led to more questions and possible problem situations. Mary carefully reviewed each question and explained the appropriate and inappropriate responses.

Next, they went to Mary’s office and reviewed Larry’s resume, to make any needed corrections before it was printed. She took Larry to a private office, which he used for the next several days, to answer questions about himself instead of about his career.

By noon, Larry and another group of the outplacement firm’s clients and consultants were taken to a nearby restaurant for lunch. On the surface, it looked like a casual lunch. But the consultants were watching how the clients behaved in a social setting, and they shared their observations openly with the clients.

After lunch, it was back to work and writing. Larry completed a “booklet,” one of several he had come in contact with since joining up with the outplacement firm. He and Mary reviewed his material.

Then they got down to the hard task of putting him in front of a potential employer. A good deal of time was spent on how to effectively use social media: Facebook, LinkedIn, Plaxo and Twitter. Then they discussed how to approach people in different industries, how to do cold calls, how to get referrals, and so on. It was all about the fine art of networking and how everything that that entailed would be just like his regular 12-hour days at his former job.

Larry returned home with his new “job search” package in tow. He knew that he and Mary would be talking at least weekly and as often as necessary. She was supportive, inquisitive, positive and challenging until he found a new job.

This story has a happy ending. Larry is now the COO of a small Wisconsin metal fabrication company, responsible for training the owner’s son to become the next CEO. He isn’t making what he made with his previous employer – about one-fourth less in fact. But he’s in a great environment, and the company is in a growth mode.

Bottom line: Larry is a happy camper!

Until the next column, if you find yourself in an outplacement program, I hope you will take full advantage of the opportunity it offers to go forward.

Harry S. Dennis III is owner and chairman of the board of TEC Wisconsin/Michigan. TEC is a professional development group for CEOs, presidents and business owners. He can be reached at (262) 821-3340. ow to make cold callsHoThen, itTh

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