Executive Transformation: 10 Ways Executives Have Changed Since Losing a Job During COVID

Working with executives during a job transition is something with which I’ve become keenly familiar. Earlier this year, I published an article about common challenges executives face in a job search to bring encouragement and practical tips to those going through it. Yet, in the “Year of COVID,” I have seen something different from typical job loss sentiments and temporary behavior modifications: executives are experiencing a deeper personal transformation – for the better.

If you are a business professional, you are likely aware that most companies are in the midst of a digital transformation at some level. Without adapting to the digital world, companies know they may soon be obsolete, or at least not as competitive. In his article on the digital business transformation imperative, George Westerman from MIT Sloan Initiative on the Digital Economy asserts“When digital transformation is done right, it’s like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, but when done wrong, all you have is a really fast caterpillar.

In the same way, this unusual year has propelled many executives experiencing a job loss into a type of metamorphosis – unintentionally. And these changes are not just your typical buzz word changes such as becoming more “resilient and agile.” Instead, they are deeply rooted and longer-lasting – similar to a caterpillar becoming a butterfly with a new persona, new tools and new abilities.

Like a necessary corporate digital transformation, these behavioral, cognitive and emotional changes are imperative for any executive in today’s world to become healthier and happier contributors to their companies, families, society and themselves.

Executive Networking Group Responses

In my work, I have the opportunity to facilitate a networking group of executives in a job transition – formerly in-person, but on Zoom for most of this year (yes, most of us mourn not buying Zoom stock in February). At a recent meeting, I asked the group of 16, “How have you changed as a result of losing your job during the COVID shutdown?” The responses were moving, but not surprising. Here are the top 10 changes they shared:

1.    I’ve discovered my true identity.

One executive admitted, “I’ve realized who I am as a person outside of my job.” She went on to describe how she has always put work ahead of everything else, and she didn’t really know who she was without her work or job title. With the lockdown, she has learned more about her identity beyond the scope of work and, as a result, is more grounded and thoughtful about her future. Ultimately, having time to reconnect with who we are, independent of what we do, is a freeing experience.

2.    I’ve re-prioritized my values.

Several executives shared “I rediscovered my children” and as such decided to re-order their priorities by moving their kids higher up the list. Because of being home with her child, one single mom discovered her daughter had some learning challenges previously unnoticed and now she is addressing it. Even better, over the summer, the mother and daughter were able to bond in a new way – by attending a summer camp together – which was something she could have never done if she were working.

Another executive realized she had unintentionally neglected family and friends with her former intense work ethic and was now “able to invest in a tighter inner circle of relationships” which has greatly enriched her life. While she recently landed a demanding new SVP role, she vows to re-prioritize important relationships based on her new conviction.

3.    I’ve become more purposeful about my life

Almost everyone commented that they were drawn to “discover a purpose to their life beyond their career.” Many reached conclusions about their desire to help others, give back and make a difference. Some chose to volunteer at a food bank each week, many became mentors to young people in their industry, and others did pro bono work for friends trying to start a business. For example, one of them created websites for all his entrepreneurial friends, another developed digital marketing strategies for struggling nonprofits, and almost all helped unemployed friends expand their network and provide job leads. The sentiments were universal: when facing hard times, they felt most fulfilled by living with a purpose beyond themselves.

4.    I’ve become much more empathetic. 

One senior executive at a Fortune 10 company said he will “never look at the unemployed person he is interviewing in the same way again.” He admitted that after being on the other side of the desk for 27 years interviewing others, he has been humbled by enduring endless rounds of interviews this year, only to be turned down after a long waiting game. His ego took a hit and he and others in the group have pledged, when they get their next job, to be timely and responsive to those whom they interview, avoid pre-judging the unemployed and to communicate honestly with candidates when they are not a fit.

At this point, the group chimed in to agree that what got them most irritated during this season was the lack of timely response from recruiters after an interview, not losing out on the job itself. In fact, this group would often celebrate the best “Dear John” letters and rank them for a laugh as they made a mental note of how they will reject candidates better in the future. More humble, responsive and empathetic hiring executives is certainly a win for everyone!

5.    I’ve learned it’s OK to be more authentic in professional settings.

Our group also discovered a new level of authentic relationships. At the start of the year, the members of the group that met in-person in a conference room twice a month were quite polished: freshly laundered and ironed shirts, manicured hands, up-to-date hairstyles without grey roots (among the women, at least), and firm handshakes with “elevator pitches” confidently delivered.

By mid-March, our in-person meetings were replaced by videoconference calls, and the polish had been dulled by the news of COVID. Most seemed to be in somewhat of a daze, calling in from poorly-lit rooms with unmade beds, accompanied by loud children vying for attention, cats jumping on laps, half-dressed spouses walking around in the background, and with genuine uncertainty about what it meant to “flatten the curve.”

As our Zoom etiquette improved over the months and we learned to use fake virtual backgrounds to cover up our home chaos, we also learned to embrace the chaos in the foreground. We became comfortable with our grey roots and overgrown hair, as well as the honest answers about personal struggles, homeschooling kids, and an uncertain economic future. As the authenticity increased, so did the depth of the relationships, which led to a beautiful display of altruistic help for one another. The shift was palpable. Authenticity was no longer a trendy term. It was real, deeply personal, and it made a difference as we navigated a shared, yet uncertain, environment. One executive summed up the group’s behavioral shift when she stated, “I no longer play the game to impress others but have decided to be comfortable with being myself.”

6.    I appreciate interacting with people more than ever.

As the idea of remote work went from being a short-term fix to an option that employers would consider for the long-term, most executives were thrilled to be able to apply for roles whose locations would once have made them unreachable. However, while the novelty of working from home kept people motivated at first (especially those recovering from commutes on the freeways of Los Angeles), after just a few months, most admitted they longed for in-person human interaction. Even for introverts, feelings of isolation were beginning to take their toll.

We were also experiencing Zoom exhaustion – now a well-known phenomenon where too much human interaction on a screen is depleting, not energizing. What emerged was the realization that we all need a face-to-face connection. One executive described her “a-ha!” moment by saying, “I was always the super busy power corporate executive whose husband knew all the neighbors. No one knew who I was, but they knew and loved my husband. Now, missing human interactions at work, it is so nice to now be able to connect to life again, my community, neighbors, kids on the street. There was a world I was missing… until now.”

7.    I’ve re-assessed my career direction.

Many in our group used this time to reevaluate their job trajectory. What they once thought was their career goal was re-assessed thanks to this unexpected season of self-reflection. For example, one executive took multiple self-assessments and discovered she loves mentoring and developing people. As a result, she plans to incorporate such self-assessment tools for teams into the SVP role she just secured, enriching her own job happiness and that of those who will report to her.

Another VP in hospital administration decided to pivot his career and drop down a level or two in order to go back into his first love of diagnostic lab work. Unlike his past concern of weakening his resume with a step down, he reasoned that he loved the field, it is a growing industry, the job was close to home, and he really liked the people who worked there. He confidently decided, “I am choosing quality of life over a bigger title and more money, and I’ve never felt better about the decision.”

And a former SVP of a global cosmetic company became an entrepreneur, developing three consumer products in three different niches, and is currently launching multiple startups. These businesses will create new jobs for others, the promise of substantial revenue, and the personal satisfaction of working for himself and creating consumer products with an open market niche. This is a reminder to any professional: continually re-assess your career and be open to pivot when a new opportunity aligns with your talents, values, and purpose.

8.    I’ve learned the art of patience.

In a strong job market – one that’s not dealing with a global pandemic shutdown – it typically takes an executive an average of 6-12 months to find a new job. While this year may have changed all the “averages,” it has been a lesson in patience for just about everyone. Executives are used to things happening on their timing, with people responding on-demand. Yet this year delivered a roller coaster of emotions as many waited for the economy to rebound and recruiters to respond. With the latter, some said they felt ghosted, others angry, and others just plain irritated with long wait times or no responses to job applications for which they were profoundly qualified. Yet for all, there came a time when the frustration leveled off and patience grew. In answer to my question, almost all of them commented “I am grateful to have finally learned the art of patience.”

9.    I’ve surrendered control.

Similarly, surrendering control does not come easy for anyone, let alone an executive used to being in charge. One executive said, “I have given up thinking I can get inside any of my interviewers’ heads and understand why they haven’t got back to me.” Another executive worked on his job search from his hot garage all summer, with his young kids coming in and out trying to play while he interviewed and networked. The whole group witnessed his shift as this Type A driver surrendered control out of pure necessity. What followed was humor, relief, and peace when he decided to stop fighting the uncontrollable and wave the white flag of surrender. Interestingly, he eventually landed a CEO role after he let go of trying to control the process.

10. I’m taking better care of myself.

Many have described this year as one to pause, reset, slow down, and reflect. Before COVID and job loss, most executives were on a fast-paced, relentless rush that included early morning gym workouts, long commutes in traffic, 10-to 12-hour workdays, fast food, lack of downtime and sleep, only to repeat the cycle the next day. Many answered my question on how they have changed by noting their new circadian rhythm in sleeping in, spending more time outside, taking walks in nature, and planting gardens. Many have learned to cook, discovered a new hobby, rediscovered old hobbies, worked on house projects, organized kitchen pantries (one with its own set of alphabetized labels for the canned goods – he admitted he got a little carried away), helped neighbors, and as one expressed “the slower pace of life has opened up my ability to think creatively again.”

One client began a side business of woodworking, noting, “If I hadn’t lost my job, I would not have had the time to express my creativity through art and realize how much I missed doing it.” These executives are now taking care of themselves in new ways that ultimately will result in a healthier lifestyle and higher contentment.

Final Thoughts

While I am certain this past year is not on anyone’s list for “best year ever,” the serendipitous reinvention I have witnessed among unemployed executives can be a lesson to all of us. This season of intense “cocooning” has refined and improved the human quality of the executives I coach to a level worth noting and celebrating. Instead of faster caterpillars, I am seeing butterflies freely soaring - job or no job.

These movers and shakers in their diverse fields of business are emerging as a new model of leadership learned not from a TED Talk, an MBA program, or a new self-help bestseller, but from offsetting something they could not control with the things they could. The beneficiaries of their inner transformation will no doubt be all who report to them in the future, the businesses they lead, the community in which they live, and the families to which they belong. But the lesson of inner transformation is for all of us.