Job Hunting

“Yeah, I Worked for Lehman, But …”

Can a finance executive overcome the stigma of having worked for a high-profile company that went down in flames?
David McCannJuly 13, 2011

How do you find a new, high-level finance job if your previous employer is an albatross around your neck? What about if you’re on the hiring side, looking to fill a key staff position — should you err on the side of caution and not consider a person from an albatross company? The somewhat contradictory answers may be “not easily” and “not necessarily.”

While the roster of tainted companies is continually replenished with new failures, over the past couple years the financial-services sector has served up the weightiest albatrosses, like Lehman Brothers, Countrywide, and Bear Stearns.

“There is such a lot of positive cachet associated with, say, a CFO who took a company public and there were smiling investors at the end of it, versus one who took a company bankrupt,” says Larry Stybel, CEO of Stybel Peabody Lincolnshire, which provides outplacement services for displaced high-ranking executives. “CFOs, let alone other finance officers, don’t necessarily cause the bad stuff to happen, but they’re tarred with it.”

Such bias may even stymie former high-level employees of big banks that are still in business and making money. Scott Bowen, a former CFO of Deutsche Bank’s Americas operations and of Morgan Stanley’s investment arm, is currently looking for CFO work outside the big-banking arena. He acknowledges that he has felt embarrassment that much of the industry he spent 25 years in, and loved, behaved so horrendously. “And as I went out and started speaking to people who were not in the banking business, or even in financial services, I saw there was a prejudice,” he says. “In a number of interviews they thought I might have been part of that, that maybe I didn’t have the right ethics or skill set.”

Stybel suggests, first, that albatross-burdened financial officers ask their references to encourage recruiters to speak with them. If that results in an interview, try to raise the topic first, but if the hiring authority beats you to it, that’s still better than neither of you talking about it. “If they fail to bring it up, that’s a bad sign, because it means they want a polite conversation, and you won’t be hired from a polite conversation,” Stybel says.

When the topic does come to the table it’s a very sensitive moment, because the common wisdom that you should not say anything negative about a former employer applies even here. Say, for example, that the hiring manager charges that your albatross was tired and dysfunctional, and responded late and poorly to changing business conditions. One response could be something like, “You are right, but our company was complex. Within my area of responsibility we did some exciting, innovative things. I’d like to talk about that with an understanding that I am interested in helping you be the best company you can be. I have no intentions of bringing in albatross ways of doing business. I know how to unlearn!”

From a hiring company’s point of view, meanwhile, the first mission is to ascertain whether the candidate’s role was more strategic (that is, policymaking) or tactical. To get a sense of where someone was on that spectrum, ask questions like: Did you know what was going on? Did you raise your hand to say anything, openly disagree with the strategy, or go along with it?

But it’s possible that even policymakers at failed companies might be worthwhile hires. “To summarily dismiss someone because of surface factors is not the right thing to do,” says Lorraine Hack, a partner in the financial officers practice at recruiter Heidrick & Struggles. “Look at Arthur Andersen. There were a lot of great people there who landed great jobs. Many companies were smart enough to realize that not everyone there had a hand in Andersen’s downfall or was lesser in any way.”

In fact, making such a hire can be a value play, says Stybel. You may find somebody who wants so much to “get back in the game” and create distance from their albatross employer that they will sign on for a lower-than-market pay package.

In any hiring situation, there is a risk of not picking the best person for the job because of overweighting an isolated factor, as well as a risk of affirmatively hiring someone who appears to be supremely qualified but proves to be a jerk. Says Stybel, “A typically risk-averse CFO who is hiring a key team member is usually OK with a suboptimal person, because the CFO is the only one who will know that — whereas if he hires a jerk, everyone will know it.”