Avoid Sinking Your Career When Opting to Jump Ship

By Erin White

Many executives get restless as dull years turn into dull decades in the corporate world. Some fantasize about early retirement. But others long for the thrill and agility of working for a much smaller company, or even a start-up.

In the late 1990s, of course, the business world teemed with such opportunities, especially for young employees who jumped ship in droves. The tech bust and lousy job market that ensued dried up jobs. But now that the job market shows signs of improvement, some senior people are feeling more comfortable taking such risks and are being recruited more vigorously because of their experience.

"In a bust people are frightened -- if they jump to the next job, what if it doesn't work out?" says Marc Cenedella, president and chief executive officer of TheLadders.com, an executive job-search service based in New York. A better job market gives people a greater sense of security, he says.

Mr. Cenedella speaks from experience. He left career Web site HotJobs.com as senior vice president of finance and operations in 2002 and started TheLadders in the summer of 2003. He worked without pay until March 2004, and even then was making only about one-eighth of his former compensation. "But I was eight times happier," he says. A year and a half after starting the company, his compensation is "reapproaching" what he made at HotJobs. The company now has 45 employees.

He suggests people ask themselves a few questions while contemplating such a move. The most important one: Will you be happier in a much smaller environment? At a start-up, each worker has to take on more roles. "I was chief garbage collector, the senior vice president of customer service and head fund-raiser," he says. "I love that environment, but for a lot of people, it's not suitable."

Senior executives used to having a big staff need to be prepared to do menial tasks they may not have done in 20 years. "You're going to have to staple paper and sometimes take out the garbage," Mr. Cenedella says. They also have to be ready for the total absence of bureaucracy, which some executives may have previously used as an excuse for their own mistakes or slowness. "You can't blame Simpson in accounting," Mr. Cenedella says.

The chance to make his mark is what attracted Christopher Smith, 47 years old, to a start-up videoconferencing company called TeleFone TV Network Inc., New York, which provides a videoconference service called TeVue. In October, he left his post as senior vice president and general manager of the U.S. region for a cellphone and accessories distributor. He considered going back to a big company, but was intrigued by the chance to work for a start-up. Reflecting on his career so far, he realized the best experience he'd had was in the early 1990s when he was working for a small market-research consulting firm. He liked having so many different responsibilities and thought returning to a start-up would be rewarding.

"I would love to have on my résumé, 'He took it from zero to whatever and just made something a huge success,' " he says. "I haven't hit the home run. I really would like to do that."

He began talking with TeVue and was impressed by its service and technology. He started in the middle of January. He took an approximately 25% pay cut, but got a "good-sized" piece of the company that he hopes will pay off later. "I'm willing to forgo some of the bird in the hand to get one in the bush," he says. He's putting in at least 70 hours a week, compared with around 50 at his former post. And for the time being, he's working in New York even though his home is in Dallas.

His company has only about 10 employees, whereas there were about 300 workers in his division alone at his former employer. Yet, he relishes the chance to create his own company culture from scratch. "If you go into another company, your challenge is to integrate into their culture," he says. Creating such a culture yourself, he says, is "very fun and if you can do it, it's very satisfying."

Jobs at start-ups and small firms can be riskier than posts at big, established companies, so make sure you do your homework before making the plunge. Before leaving his job as vice president of global software engineering for a midsize software firm, Charles Thompson, 61 years old, conducted numerous interviews with his new employer, a small software maker called Khimetrics. He wanted to make sure that he would work well with one of the company's co-founders, a top executive at the company.

"I really wanted to understand that he trusted me," he says. "I was not going to join this company if I couldn't find that I could work with the founder." He gained reassurance with many phone calls and in-person talks, one of them a four-hour dinner over a bottle of wine. He started in June as senior vice president of research and development, and feels invigorated by the energy. "I just love the people. They're so charged up," he says

Article from CareerJournal Today – February 2005

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