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How Do I Convince Employers I Want to Downshift My Career?

By Perri Capell
Talent Zoo

Candidates looking to step back and readjust their work-life balance face a challenge communicating that to potential employers.

Question: In recent years, I have been "buried" in my career at the expense of my life, often working 18-hour days. I'm now seeking a new career path so I can balance my life. How do I convince employers that I'm willing to take a lesser job, title and salary to achieve my goals without appearing suspect?

Answer: You have a challenge ahead of you. Executives who apply for lesser jobs sometimes seem desperate to employers. The assumption is that these hires will leave if something better comes along.

For their part, senior-level job hunters who aim low often expect companies to jump at the chance to hire them because of their former title or experience doing the same job years earlier.

That's a false hope. Seeking a less-demanding role tends to make employers wary, says Aanand Murthy Varanasi, director of global staffing for VMware Inc., a Palo Alto, Calif., a software maker.

"A lot of the time, people say that they are willing to take less, but they don't mean it," says Mr. Varanasi. "Sometimes [saying this] means the person is desperate."

So what's the answer for you and other executives like you who sincerely want to "downshift" their careers to gain back personal lives? For you, gaining more free time is worth the pay sacrifice.

First, you need to defuse employers' suspicions. One tactic suggested by human-resources and job-search experts is to seek work with organizations that are receptive to hiring corporate big-shots for reduced wages. In this regard, nonprofits are a good bet, says Judith von Seldenick, chairman and chief executive officer of Diversified Search Ray & Berndtson, an executive-search firm in Philadelphia.

"The nonprofit world is interesting and stimulating but has different pressures than the corporate world, so that could be a possibility," she says.

Newer companies also might leap at the chance of recruiting a pro from a well-known or large organization.

Referrals are key for someone in your situation. Network nonstop to get out the word about your quest to contacts and gain introductions. "You need to rely on relationships and the people you know to communicate your abilities," says Ms. Von Seldenick. "Explaining this has to be done in person."

Liz Ryan, a human-resources consultant in Boulder, Colo., and former HR executive, advises being bold when writing cover letters to hiring managers. Mention your senior-level title at the top while saying something like, "You may wonder why I am applying for your opening, but if this is right for both of us, you will be getting extraordinary value because I now want balance in my life." Say that you want to take the organization to Y from X in revenues and will take a lower salary because you don't want to be working nonstop.

While many hiring executives might toss your letter, some will be excited about the possibility of bringing you on board, says Ms. Ryan. "Don't waffle or be meek about who you are," she says. "Otherwise you might seem like an executive who has inexplicably fallen from grace."

When interviewing, be clear and honest about your goals. Companies must be convinced that you are sincere. "This isn't a slam dunk," says Ms. Von Seldenick. "If I were interviewing you for my company, I would push hard to find out why you are making this change and to make sure there are no other issues."

The danger to this approach is that some employers may expect that you'll still put in 80 hours a week at this lower pay rate, says Ms. Ryan. Avoid this pothole by talking frankly about the company's expectations. A good time is after you have received an offer but before you accept the job, she says. Try saying something like, "I'm excited about this role, but I don't want to take it if you have different expectations than I do about my hours (or responsibilities, travel, etc.)."

A career at VMware, for instance, is "no cake walk" and the company wouldn't want to hire a senior person who expected to coast in a lesser job, says Mr. Varanasi. But a case in point: VMware is considering whether to hire a former consultant who wants to work fewer hours and travel less in order to spend more time with family. "We need to figure out if this can work and if she's sincere about her interests," he says. is the online destination for both job seekers and employers in the communications industry. It's also a must for up-to-the minute content on industry trends, news, career guidance, or just to schmooze. Find a better life with Talent Zoo (

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