Sherry Lansing leads career change pack

We’ve all heard the legends, or at least their vague outlines: The CEO who drops dealmaking to become a therapist. The studio chief who abandons movies to lead the charge on stem-cell research. The agent who decides Broadway plays are more compelling than talent deals.

Though most career-driven men and women are monomaniacal in pursuing their original goals, there are some who suddenly see the light and change course. And the current economic upheaval is vastly increasing their ranks.

It’s hard to remember a moment when so many professional types are being laid off, both in top and middle management. The number of so-called white-collar workers on the unemployment line is growing faster than during any previous downturn, as the New York Times reminded us this week.

Downsizing in bad times used to mean cuts along the assembly line. The current retrenchment, however, is creating a whole socioeconomic stratum of underemployed, overeducated executives.

The phenomenon is especially prevalent in the financial and media-and-entertainment sectors. Both communities suddenly boast literally thousands of one-time highfliers possessing zero incomes and lofty egos. And most are desperately searching for some form of reinvention. It won’t come easy.

“We all know lots of book editors who switch to agenting only to find that books aren’t selling, so they go back to freelance editing, only to find there’s less of a market for that,” observes Peter Gethers, a veteran of the publishing business. Gethers himself embodies a new class of multi-taskers: He edits, writes and also runs a key unit of Focus Features.

More and more executives endorse the Gethers model: When it comes to jobs, there’s safety in numbers. Others, however, favor a more radical approach: a complete shift in life goals.

For Gerald Levin, whose opaque megadeals sent Time Warner reeling, this meant starting a counseling service called Moonview Sanctuary. Bill Haber left CAA to embark on a theatrical career that ultimately led to “August: Osage County” and “Sunday in the Park With George.”

Sherry Lansing, the one-time production chief at Paramount, has become the poster girl for career change. Departing Paramount in 2005, Lansing had the opportunity to follow the traditional route of independent production or seeking other executive shots.

But then, the “been there, done that” syndrome hit her. Surely there’s a more constructive idea for a third act than trying to re-create a “Forrest Gump” or trying to recapture an “Indecent Proposal.”

For Lansing, this has meant a focus on medical research (she’s boosting stem-cell research), education (she’s a Regent of the U. of California), but most important to her is a truly timely cause: helping others find a productive third act.

This has taken the form of two initiatives: The EnCorps Teachers Program trains executives to pursue “encore careers” as salaried math or science teachers. Companies like Amgen, Boeing and Edison Intl. have been recruited to put up the money to guide and retrain workers who were once deemed redundant so that they can re-enter the workforce in a constructive new capacity. Another effort, aptly called PrimeTime, specifically recruits and places volunteers in classrooms — it’s placed people in some 14 schools. Cleveland High School in Reseda, Calif., is one school where former film and movie artisans now pitch in to help students learn production.

Lansing’s initiatives were first aimed at retirees, but the current wave of layoffs has changed all that. It’s not just the ’60s set that’s searching the landscape for new directions, but younger folks as well. That’s why her own post-career path has stirred interest.

Of course, Lansing had the advantage of wealth and name recognition. For others who are caught in the present economic undertow, the struggle is far more urgent.

And the big question looms: Are the corporate cuts merely temporary?

Ask the CEOs and you get a gloomy analysis. One lesson of the present upheaval, they’ll tell you, is that most big American companies were greatly overstaffed. As companies grew through acquisition, new layers of management were recklessly added. The upshot: Costs ballooned and decisionmaking became increasingly cumbersome.

“We’re all relearning the values of the lean-and-mean credo,” says the CEO of one major entertainment company. “We won’t be layering on again — at least not in this generation.”

Adding to this is another phenomenon: The idea of the almighty conglomerate is itself becoming passe. The Citigroups of the world have proven to be unmanageable and self-destructive. Corporate life is reshaping itself into smaller and nimbler entities with quicker reaction time and lower overheads.

All these forces represent problems for those who feel a sense of entitlement to the executive class. The ’50s model of “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit” has become an anachronism.

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