When Ken Sher was 51, he had been at Johnson & Johnson for 25 years, where, as marketing director and manager, he led the recruiting department as well as three different sales training and leadership development departments. He had two children in college and one in high school. He was at the top of his game, or so he thought, which was why the call from HR was one of the most devastating moments of his life.
“I was out,” he said. “And I realized I had no idea how to look for a job.”
Sher will discuss how he overcame this setback to thrive, and how others can deal with losing a job after age 50 at a meeting of the Professional Service Group of Mercer County on Friday, August 9, at 9:45 a.m. at the Princeton Public Library. The event is free. For more information, visit www.psgofmercercounty.org.
Sher faced many obstacles to getting back on his feet after his abrupt job loss. The first was psychological. “Especially if you’re a man, even as a modern liberal or whatever you want to call yourself, there are cultural expectations that I was the man of the house. I was the sole breadwinner, and I was trying to figure out how it was that I was not as good as I thought I was. ‘I am a failure. How am I ever going to survive this? How am I going to be able to take care of myself and my family?’”
Therapy helped Sher find a more positive outlook, and it wasn’t long before his renewed job hunting paid off, and he ended up at Bristol-Myers Squibb. Over the next six years he held three different jobs before deciding to strike out on his own as a consultant and executive coach, where he helps people who are in a similar position to what he faced six years ago.
Sher faced obstacles along the way that many older workers must overcome. There was the perception that older workers, or “tenured workers” or “mid-to-late career” workers, as Sher prefers to call them, are not tech-savvy, that they may be overpaid, and that they may lack the energy of a younger employee. While age discrimination may be illegal, it definitely still happens, Sher says.
Overcoming these stereotypes requires workers to demonstrate in interactions with potential employers that they are not tired and worn out, whether that interaction is through networking or in an interview. “I think the biggest questions that people have about tenured people are, can they handle today’s technology and the pace of things? Are they going to be able to work through a full day, or just get tired because they don’t have enough energy? You have to demonstrate those things in every communication you have.” He also recommends sprinkling one’s speech with up-to-date terminology.
Sher grew up in New York and went into a sales career after studying “English literature and partying” in college at SUNY-Oneonta. “That kind of limited my options,” he says. Between when he started his career at J&J and when it ended, the way people found jobs had completely changed.
One of the best things you can do to get a new job is to network. That’s not new advice. But Sher recommends starting before you ever think you might need to look for another job. He suggests trying to meet with one person inside your company and one outside every other week — 24 contacts might be handy to have if you’re looking for a job. And contacts inside the company might help the layoff from ever hitting you.
“The smart thing to do is network all the time within your company — in different departments and with different stakeholders,” he says. “Build relationships so you have supporters. Maybe then the choice of who’s going to go won’t be you because you have these supporters. Maybe it will open up other opportunities in the company for you.”
One tip for networking: don’t be self-centered. “Even though it’s about you, it’s not about you,” Sher says. Instead, get to know people in your industry and what problems they are facing. Find out about their career paths and how they got to where they are in the company or their industry. Find out what challenges they are facing, and see if you can help with any of them or offer advice, even if it’s something as simple as recommending a restaurant in an area you’re familiar with. One conversation leads to another, and before long you have a real connection.
Networking isn’t just at work, either. Sher says he knows a man who once lost a job, then went out to a football game with his brother-in-law. He mentioned to the brother-in-law that he was trying to make a connection at a particular company, but wasn’t making any headway. “Don’t be an asshole,” the brother-in-law replied. “If you want an introduction, just say so.” It turned out the brother-in-law lived next door to the president of the company. He introduced them after the game, and the job-seeker was soon hired.
Sher says that the most important piece of advice he has is to not go it alone. “I don’t necessarily mean hire a coach, although coaches are helpful,” he says. “You have a lot of family and friends. Take their support, ask for help, and don’t be afraid. The more people who know about your situation and the more people you can bring into it, the more chance there is that somebody is going to have something.”