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Center Comes to Aid of Execs Who Suddenly Find Themselves Jobless

April 19, 1998|MARTHA GROVES

SAN FRANCISCO — Bob Unterberger always considered himself a company man.

During a 30-year career at IBM, he uprooted his family half a dozen times to take assignments in Arizona, Minnesota, New York and elsewhere.

Highly regarded as a "change agent," he caught the eye of Eastman Kodak, which recruited him as president of its struggling digital and applied-imaging business. He lasted 18 months before a philosophical clash over how quickly and thoroughly to shake things up sent him packing.

"It was like being on a train going 90 miles an hour, then all of a sudden you're standing at the station and the train is whizzing by," Unterberger said.

Luckily, his termination agreement with Kodak included some high-voltage counseling at the Center for Executive Options, a fledgling career transition and executive-coaching service dedicated to serving corporate America's upper crust.

The role of the center, an outgrowth of Drake Beam Morin's broadly based career-consulting business, is to ease the trauma for hard-charging veterans who suddenly find themselves out of a job. Most are 50-ish and have spent decades with the same firm. Usually they have been ousted because of a merger or corporate reorganization. Sometimes a new chief executive wants to hand-pick his or her lieutenants, or prefers a different management style. The veterans might even be nudged out because their technical skills are obsolete.

Whatever the reason, many of them are shell-shocked by the time they arrive at the center's door.

"Most of these executives believe they have been hit by the brick wall," said H. Colin Sanders, an executive advisor at the center's San Francisco office, one of four nationwide.


Sanders, 60, who spent much of his previous career as a high-tech executive, views his role as prodding clients to take a holistic approach to figuring out what to do next. The client's spouse often becomes part of the equation, participating in part of the four days of intensive interviews that launch the program.

The idea is to learn who the individual is and to sort out what made the executive succeed or fail. "We try to match their choice with their values," Sanders said. "It's not our responsibility to find them a job, but to keep probing, coaching and showing them the way."

For Unterberger, who is in his mid-50s, the evaluation revealed that he wanted more balance in his life. Too restless to retire, he is exploring the idea of teaching at a university, drawing on his real-world experience as a "change manager."

Executives in transition who take time to examine their inner desires often realize they want to give something back to society, Sanders is finding. About a year ago, he struck up an informal counseling relationship with Jane Yuster, a Drake Beam Morin client who had bolted from an agricultural biotech company.

Yuster's problem was that she had peaked too soon. In her mid-30s, she became president of Troy Biosciences Inc., a promising ag biotech company in Phoenix. She enjoyed the trappings of executive life, including jet-setting global travel.

But she was unhappy.

"I had done pretty much everything I set out to do," she said. "You drive to succeed and all of a sudden you succeed, and the question is: Do I just continue doing this?"


In a casual conversation about his own daughter's desire to buy a horse, Sanders noticed that Yuster came alive. Indeed, horses and dogs are passions for the young executive. Perhaps you should do something with those interests, he suggested.

He eventually steered her toward the nonprofit sector. To research the subject, she visited the library at Alumnae Resources, a San Francisco job-counseling and career resource service.

She liked the organization so much that she stayed. Since October, she has been chief operating officer, a position created to take advantage of her years of experience building a start-up. She is working long hours and making less money, but the reduced demand for travel means she has time for her hobby of raising golden retrievers.

"It's working very well," she said. "I probably will be forever grateful to Colin."

Services at the Center for Executive Options don't come cheap: For each executive, companies shell out $35,000 for a 12-month comprehensive program. As part of its fee, the center sets the executive up with a desktop or a laptop computer with Internet access and a camera that allows for videoconferencing.

For unlimited counseling over an executive's lifetime, the fee is 17% of the individual's compensation, with a minimum of $45,000. Of 50 clients so far, about a third have signed up for that option.

Why would a company pay such a price to help an individual heading for the exit? Sanders points to several reasons: Many corporations feel an obligation to treat a long-term employee well. The action shows those who remain--and the community at large--that the company is acting responsibly. And companies want the executive focused on his or her future--rather than on a lawsuit.


Does your company have an innovative strategy for retaining employees? Tell us about it. Write to Martha Groves, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles CA 90053, or e-mail

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