Earlier this year, Shirley Wiliani, CFO of Menemsha Development Group, a privately held commercial construction company based in southern California, decided it was time to start looking for a new job. After helping the company triple its revenue during the past four years, she felt she had accomplished all she could there, and was ready for a new career challenge.
Then Wiliani took an unusual step. With no new job in sight, she told her boss about her plans, eventually helping him craft an e-mail to tell all Menemsha employees about them.
“The market being what it is, I really needed time to be able to network and look,” says Wiliani, who has worked for four companies in the past 13 years. “I hated the thought of having to try to hide every interview that came through.” She also knew how long it might take to hire and train a suitable replacement, and she didn’t want to leave the company in the lurch by giving only two weeks’ notice.
Wiliani is hardly alone in feeling like it might be time for a change. Recruiters estimate that many executives have stuck with their job through the downturn simply because of the difficult job market, and that many are ready to leap. But Wiliani’s approach — being up front about her intentions without actually leaving — is a radical one.
Experts point out that while the approach may be brave, it carries great risks. “In a traditional employment market, we wouldn’t recommend that anyone launch an active search while employed,” says Gail Meneley, principal at Shields Meneley Partners, an executive-coaching firm based in Chicago. Not only could it pose ethical conflicts, but a search can essentially amount to a second full-time job, says Meneley.
Timing can also create problems. Meneley points out that given the large supply of finance executives and the relatively low demand for them, it’s more likely that a company will find a replacement before the outgoing CFO gets a new job.
To Wiliani’s mind, though, opening up about her future plans was “a win-win” for her and the company. Three months after her announcement, with her job search still ongoing, she acknowledges her approach has led to some awkward moments at work, but she still wouldn’t do things differently. “I just couldn’t live with myself otherwise, especially knowing how long it could take the company to find someone else,” she says.
Indeed, being open can work out well, given the right relationships and appropriate reasons. Steve McElhinney had worked for various New Balance companies, most recently as CFO of lacrosse product maker Warrior Sports, for close to 10 years and moved from Massachusetts to Michigan during the time. When he and his family decided last year that they wanted to return to the New England area, he let his boss know for many of the same reasons that Wiliani told hers. In exchange for an agreement that he would stay with the company until he could train a replacement, Warrior footed the bill for McElhinney to work with Keystone Partners, an outplacement firm in the Boston area, which put him on the path to his current position as CFO of Boston-based Karmaloop, an online clothing retailer.
Rick Darer, former CFO of Web application company Gomez, says he gives “a lot of credit” to a controller he is currently mentoring who made a similar decision to leave her job in conjunction with a company relocation. “Telling the boss is a gutsy move,” he says, “and as much as I wished people would have given me more notice when they were leaving, realistically, [a lot of] people just aren’t going to share that.”