Laid Off? Here's Your Safety Net

Executive support networks help CIOs achieve a soft landing.

When Wade Vann, former CIO at Simmons Bedding Co., was laid off in the summer of 2008, it was naturally a difficult time. "When you've been working 60 to 70 hours a week and that goes away, it's a big deal," Vann says. "There's a lot of stress you've never had to deal with before, including your own sense of self-worth."

What cushioned the blow, he says, were the networking groups he joined that not only helped him maintain a routine, meet people he otherwise would never have met and fine-tune the logistics of his job search, but also provided a generous helping of emotional support and specific job leads. "I was amazed at the amount of help," says Vann, who recently accepted a CIO position at Augusta Sportswear Inc. in Augusta, Ga. In one group, he says, to be accepted as a member, you had to have a pay-it-forward attitude in terms of helping others -- not yourself -- find a job, even though other laid-off CIOs (i.e., competitors) were members as well.

To Vann, networking is the key to most successful job searches. "It takes a lot of work to spend a major portion of your day making cold calls, but it does pay off, and I've developed relationships with people I will stay in touch with for the remainder of my career," he says. "That part of the transition has been a true blessing."

Generally, networking groups for executives in transition meet once a week to once a month and provide a variety of services, including expert speakers on career transition topics, job leads from affiliated outplacement firms, and group meetings for networking. As Vann found, the number of such groups is growing, as are the ranks of the jobless in networking groups intended for both employed and unemployed executives. He says a couple of the networks he was in outgrew the facilities they used for meetings.

Case in point: the Executive Network Group of Greater Chicago. A nonprofit organization that's been in business 19 years, ENG has seen its membership more than double since the beginning of the year, to 366 members, according to Executive Director Chris Campbell. Attendance at ENG's monthly meetings has substantially increased, to the point where the group has to turn away some people because the room holds a maximum of 200.

If there's a silver lining to the rampant layoffs from the recession, it might be the support that displaced executives are providing to one another, both online and off. "Most of these executives have never had to figure out what it's like not to have a job, but everyone has a pay-it-forward, 'we're all in this together' attitude," says Ryon Harms, who was in transition for four months before accepting a position as director of Internet marketing at EFI Sports Medicine in San Diego. Harms also co-founded a networking organization called Pacific Executive Network and runs a blog advising executives about using social media to expand their networks.

"It's interesting to see everyone helping each other out with no real expectation that the person would help them back but that somebody else in the community would," he says.

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