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The Great Resignation Comes for the C-Suite

Some were burned out. Some were unhappy. Some were disillusioned. Some wanted their lives back. Some truly and genuinely wanted to spend more time with their families. All, in their own ways, decided that they’d had enough with the intense demands that come with being a senior executive, and walked away.

As the Great Resignation sweeps the American work force, it is low-wage workers — particularly those in the service industry — who are making up a majority of the turnover. Insufficient pay, poor working conditions, pandemic burnout and the opportunity to earn more elsewhere are all playing a role in creating a historically turbulent labor force. Some 4.5 million people left their jobs in November, a million more than in any month before the pandemic. The total in December was nearly as high.

But the urge to resign is not confined to frontline workers. Chief executives, chief financial officers and other C-level executives are walking off the job, too. And while some are inevitably leaving one role to take a new one, some are dropping out altogether, at least for a bit.

Many of the executives leaving top jobs are fortunate enough to quit without having to worry about how to pay their bills, and they say their decisions aren’t driven by finances. Instead, they are propelled by a mix of needing a break, reassessing the role of work in their lives and wanting to pursue new ventures.

Sanjay Poonen, former chief operating officer of VMware

Years on the job: 8

Jason Henry for The New York Times
Jason Henry for The New York Times

Sanjay Poonen was in line for the big job. As the chief operating officer of VMware, the large cloud computing firm, he was a top contender to replace the departing chief executive.

But in the end, the C.E.O. role went to someone else, and last year, Mr. Poonen left the company. “It was a good time for me” he said. “I’ve never really taken a break in my life.”

Now, Mr. Poonen finds himself with an abundance of time to spend with his family and his faith at his home in Los Altos, Calif.

His three children are in middle school and high school, and he is soaking up as much time with them as he can. “I love being a chauffeur for them in the morning and going to all their soccer and basketball games,” he said.

Mr. Poonen, a practicing Christian, is spending his days listening to an audiobook of the Bible while riding his bicycle, and looking for ways to be more charitable — donating to the needy and volunteering his time.

“The pandemic has opened my eyes to so many people who have less than I do,” he said. “I want to make my life a blessing to everyone I come in touch with.”

Headhunters came calling as soon as he left VMware, offering new jobs. Though Mr. Poonen, 52, turned them down, he won’t rule out taking on another big role in the future. “I’m young enough that I’m going to get back on the treadmill at some point,” he said. “But I’m not going to do anything for at least six months.”

Rebecca Hellmann, former chief marketing officer of Olive

Years on the job: 2

Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times
Maddie McGarvey for The New York Times

For 20 years, Rebecca Hellmann had worked her way up the career ladder in the health care industry. In 2019, she left a senior marketing position at Cardinal Health, a major pharmaceutical distributor, to become chief marketing officer of Olive, a start-up based in Columbus, Ohio, that works with hospitals. “I thought that was the last leap I would make,” she said.

But as the pandemic wore on, Ms. Hellmann found herself closer than expected to the front lines of the fight against Covid-19. All day, she would hear stories about overtaxed emergency rooms and rising death counts.

At the same time, Ms. Hellmann, a single mother of four, was trying to keep her children on task during remote learning while maintaining her composure on ceaseless Zoom meetings.

“It was stressful,” she said. “I had a moment where I was like, ‘Is this what it’s supposed to be like?’”

That simple question was the first crack in a broader questioning of her identity and purpose, and before long, Ms. Hellmann had resolved to make a drastic change. In August 2020, she quit.

“I had no idea what I was doing, but I knew this wasn’t it,” she said.

Over the past year, Mr. Hellmann has turned to mindfulness meditation, first as a way to find peace, and now, potentially, as a new career. She went on a weeklong meditation kayak trip in Mexico, completed a yearlong mindfulness training course and has now begun her own coaching business, where she is helping others navigate their careers.

It remains to be seen if Ms. Hellmann can support her family with her coaching business. She has not ruled out returning to the world of marketing. But for now, she believes she is doing what she needs to be doing, far from the C-suite.

“I’ll either come back and do that, or we’ll see where this leads me,” she said. “You only have one life.”

Lauren Letta, former chief operating officer of Charity: water

Years on the job: 10

Brittainy Newman for The New York Times
Brittainy Newman for The New York Times

As the chief operating officer of Charity: water, Lauren Letta had what she described as her “dream job.” She had been with the organization, a buzzy New York-based nonprofit, for a decade, helping scale it from a wild idea to a philanthropic force with a $100 million budget.

But by last year, the distinction between Lauren, the person, and Lauren, the C.O.O. of Charity: water, was getting hard for even Ms. Letta herself to discern. She was working long hours, handing her young daughter off to the nanny most mornings and traveling often.

“I had no life outside of it,” she said. “I felt like I started to lose who I was. It was a point in my career when I knew if I don’t leave now, I never will.”

So after seeing the organization through the first year of the pandemic, Ms. Letta stepped away last March. “I have no idea what’s next,” she wrote in an essay on Medium at the time.

She and her husband, the chief operating officer of the venture capital firm Human Ventures, spent six months in the Catskills and began to decompress, enjoying nature and spending more time with their daughter. “It took two months to transform back into my self,” she said.

After several months, Ms. Letta, 37, was drawn back to work — but not a full-time job. She is now consulting for a handful of companies but doing it on her own terms, and with fewer hours.

At Charity: water, she was working full days, often spending several hours a night catching up, and putting in time on the weekends, too. Now, she says she isn’t working more than five hours a day.

“I’m working way more efficiently with less time,” she said.

Joe Toubes, former chief marketing officer for Honeywell

Years on the job: 18

Karsten Moran for The New York Times
Karsten Moran for The New York Times

As chief marketing officer for Honeywell, the industrial conglomerate, Joe Toubes, at just 48, had reached the top. He was drawing a handsome salary, living comfortably in Millburn, N.J. and leading branding for one of the biggest manufacturers in the world.

But by last year, Mr. Toubes had reached an unfamiliar and somewhat unnerving conclusion: “I started to not be happy,” he said.

For years, Mr. Toubes would jump out of bed raring to go and excited about work. But while Mr. Toubes had a fulfilling family life, when it came to the office, the thrill was gone.

“It seems an odd thing in the corporate world, especially as a senior executive,” he said. “I felt guilty about it. It was deflating.”

Mr. Toubes decided he needed a change, and when Honeywell began moving its operations from New Jersey to Charlotte, N.C., he had the opportunity he needed. In September, he left the company.

Mr. Toubes recognizes his privilege in being able to up and quit, and said he plans to return to the work force one day. “I had the luxury to make that kind of decision because I was at a senior level and had been well rewarded for a number of years,” he said.

And what is he doing with his newfound free time?

“The day I left, I committed to taking on something that I love to do, but had never had the time to do, which was writing,” he said. “I had a passion for fiction, and I started to write a novel.”

In addition to writing, the sabbatical is giving Mr. Toubes precious time with his teenage boys. And while he said that “the act of writing is a release,” he is realistic about the commercial prospects for his novel.

“It’s terrible,” he said. “I have no illusions that it will be published.”

Dan Gertsacov, former chief commercial officer for Focus Brands

Years on the job: 1

Audra Melton for The New York Times
Audra Melton for The New York Times

When the pandemic hit, Dan Gertsacov was chief marketing officer for Focus Brands, the Atlanta-based restaurant group behind Cinnabon, Jamba and Moe’s Southwest Grill.

“On one day of March 2020, our business couldn’t support the team that we had,” he said. “I had to let go of 40 people in one day. I decided to make all of these calls myself.”

Mr. Gertsacov hung on for almost another two years, getting promoted to chief commercial officer. He took advantage of his company’s remote work policies and hit the road, spending time with his family in California and New England last summer.

But by the end of 2021, he was burned out. He walked away, with plans to explore some entrepreneurial ideas and spend more time with his family.

Mr. Gertsacov said he would have to keep earning money, and he is already doing some consulting work. “I’m not a dot-com millionaire where I can no longer work,” said Mr. Gertsacov, who has two adolescent children. “We’re saving for college.”

Yet if and when he returns to an office full time, Mr. Gertsacov won’t be taking just any old job. As he looks ahead to what comes next, Mr. Gertsacov said he was embracing the Japanese concept of “Ikigai,” which is loosely defined as one’s reason for being, or the sweet spot where what you love, what you’re good at, what you can get paid for and what the world needs all overlap.

Even that, however, will have to wait. Mr. Gertsacov is planning on spending 10 weeks in Spain this summer. “I’m not ready to jump back in,” he said.

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