“Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated” was Mark Twain’s response when he learned that his obituary had been printed in a New York newspaper. But it’s certainly understandable if mature adults wonder if their career is dead after the loss of a job. That was certainly true of Robert Christensen of Johnston, Iowa.
Christensen began his career nearly forty years ago as a broadcaster at his family’s radio and cable television station. Arriving at work at 4 A.M. to prepare for the broadcast, Christensen worked the 6 A.M. to 1 P.M. radio shift. After going off air, he spent the next several hours traveling around the town visiting potential clients, attempting to sell them advertising. And if long days weren’t enough, on Fridays and Saturdays he spent his time doing play-byplay announcing of high school sports. This rough schedule lasted for years until, after twenty-three years in the business, the family decided to sell the company. Too young to retire and needing something to do, Christensen decided to move to Des Moines and start a new career—one in sales where he could use his experiences. He landed a job with Champion Company, the oldest funeral supply company in the United States.
For nearly twenty years, Christensen excelled at his job. He sold embalming fluid and other funeral supplies to funeral homes. It was a hectic job, but one that he flourished in. As one of thirty-four sales representatives of the company, Christensen was always one of the company’s top sales executives. He had command of his products, had built a wonderful relationship with his customers, and had everything under control in his southeast South Dakota and eastern Nebraska territory. But in 1999, his world began to change. Due to economic pressures and increased competition, Champion decided to downsize. They cut the sales staff from thirty-four to eight representatives. While Christensen was one of the lucky eight to remain, what followed was a nightmare. His territory expanded significantly, from his southeast Dakota and eastern Nebraska territory to one that included seven states. Here he was, nearing sixty years of age, driving some 60,000 miles a year. Yet as a dedicated employee and in the interest of serving his customers, Christensen didn’t complain—he simply kept doing his job as effectively as he could. After all, he still had a good job—unlike twenty-six of his former peers. But that, too, changed in late 2002, when on a Friday evening, Christensen and the other sales executives received notice that their positions were being eliminated—the company had decided to cut costs further, all sales would be handled through telemarketing. Needless to say, that’s not the kind of message anyone wants to get—let alone someone in the twilight of his or her career.
Understandably upset, Christensen began pondering what to do. He knew he had excellent skills, but would a company hire a sixty-year-old employee? How did he start looking for a job? And whom should he contact? Using the services of a career counselor, Christensen realized that he had the answer readily available to him and that he should look deeply into his sphere of influence. He recalled countless conversations with the president of a client organization, Hamilton Funeral Home. The president enjoyed dealing with Christensen because he found him compassionate, caring, and skilled. He knew the funeral home business from all angles and had a wonderful way of dealing with people. It wasn’t long after the two had talked that Christensen started his new career at Hamilton as an advanced planning counselor—someone who works with families in making funeral arrangements for their loved ones.
1. How can you prepare yourself for involuntary career changes like Robert Christensen encountered?
2. Which career stage would you consider Christensen to be in when at sixty years of age, his position as a sales executive was eliminated? Why?
3. What did Christensen do right and what did he do wrong in managing his career?