I have many conversations inspired by this one brutal fact – most employees reach their peak income at forty five years old or shortly thereafter. For most, it is downhill from there. Why does this happen? Is it a foregone conclusion? What are the options for senior managers?

My feeling is that our late forties is a time when we are just hitting our stride as leaders. It is an unfortunate structural conundrum that many qualified leaders are forced out of their companies when they are at their best. But it is a reality.

Corporations have a pyramid structure to their compensation. Leaders at the top make the most money, and new associates at the bottom make the least. Increases in salary are commensurate with the experience that comes with age. By age forty-five most employees are both experienced and expensive.

The lucky few will make the cut and join the corporate board. They are, statistically speaking, outliers. The overwhelming majority will not. Is this because the overwhelming majority of hard working career leaders are simply inadequate? Certainly Not.

We have a structural challenge in corporations. There quite simply are not enough stones at each level of the pyramid to support all of the great people from the prior level.

If you are a senior manager approaching the top floor, should you just keep plugging away and cross your fingers that there is a stone at the top with your name on it?

If you are a senior manager, that is likely what you will do. After all, that’s what got you to where you are now, isn’t it? If, however, you take your own advice and look to the data for answers, you will see that regardless of your awesomeness, it is very unlikely that you will sit in one of those board seats.

If you are a senior manager and you are still reading this post, then it is time to look at all the options.

The consequences of continuing to plug away could be that action will be taken for you. More often than not, this means you will be structured out of your senior leadership role. You are expensive! The VP role is neither close enough to the revenue generation part of the business nor is it yet at the top level of leadership. This is a very precarious position to be in.

What would I do if I were you?

There are a few actions that I have seen increase the well-being of many of my acquaintances over the years. I will boil it down to 3.

  1. Jump to another company now! Find a place where your skill set is exactly what some other company needs to improve their performance. You may be one of a dozen people with your skill set at your current company, but maybe one of your competitors would love to have your expertise. I recently worked with a Regional Sales Director in a large German manufacturing company who was one of five such directors at the company. Nonetheless, he was recruited to join a large U.S.-based firm with no physical presence on our side of the Atlantic. Your industry competitors in the market are always curious about you because no two companies are alike and you bring a unique perspective.
  2. If you are fortunate to have made some wise financial investments with the years of senior leadership salary that you were earning, then you might choose to do something more radical. Join a startup! Go for the future expected value instead of the monthly package with yearly bonus. The energy and creativity in a startup company can be invigorating, and your experience will ensure that you get the respect you deserve.
  3. Maybe it is time for a really radical change? You always wanted to teach or maybe it is finally time to consider opening that restaurant with your sister-in-law? The mid-forties can be a great time to pursue that passion work.

Over my career, I have seen all these routes pursued by candidates and acquaintances. I have no doubt you can be successful. Take the time to reflect. Maybe think back to the dreams you had at the start of your career. Align those values with the means you have today. Stop taking your physical health for granted and examine your level of stress. Start thinking about a possible transition now, even if you are only half serious. Allowing the idea of real change to enter your consciousness will allow you to imagine new possibilities without committing to anything. If it feels good to imagine another way of being, that may be a sign to put something in motion. I give you permission 🙂

Pierre Collowald is a Senior Partner at Robertson Associates, a European Executive Search and Leadership Solutions boutique. Pierre is working out of Brussels, Stuttgart and Zurich. pierre.collowald@robertson-associates.eu