When County Bank in Merced, Calif., failed last year, the subsequent job cuts hit its former chief executive Thomas Hawker hard. He would log on to a Web site the former employees created to swap information on job openings, only to see posts about how they could not find work.

"I felt a real sense of frustration that I could do nothing to help them," says Hawker, 66. "And that led me to looking for other things that I might be able to do to feel more useful."

Hawker found a sense of purpose by traveling to China in September and mentoring missionaries who have started businesses there. He plans to go back again this fall.

Other CEOs of failed banks confront a similar challenge of figuring out how to reinvent themselves after their banking careers end. Some have dived into volunteer work closer to home or personal projects like writing a book. But generally they had to work through a lot of emotional turmoil first.

"It's a time of bewilderment and uncertainty, as they ask themselves, 'What am I going to do now?'" says Larry Martin, the president of the Denver consulting firm Bank Strategies LLC. "It is a soul-searching experience for many of them."

In Hawker's case, his trip overseas as a volunteer helped him mend. He taught the missionaries - mostly Christians from the U.S. who had never run a business before - about drafting a business plan, keeping financial records and marketing. Hawker even met with Chinese bankers during his two weeks there to learn how the missionaries could access credit.

"It gave me the feeling that my skill sets still have a value," Hawker says.

After a bank fails, those who've lost their jobs - and in some cases their careers - have to deal with a flood of emotions, observers say. Some liken it to the five stages of grief.

Often the top executives are in shock initially, even if they knew failure was inevitable, says Walter Moeling, a partner in the Atlanta office of the law firm Bryan Cave LLP.

"The shock starts long about 5:30 on the Friday afternoon that the FDIC comes in to close the bank," Moeling says. "It is very abrupt: The CEO and others on the executive management team are physically escorted from the building, and they are allowed to pick a time when they can come back and pick up their personal things."

The summary dismissal and lack of discussion can be disconcerting to those used to being in charge," he says. "The regulators don't want their information, their help, their history - they just want them to go home."

Martin says denial is another typical reaction, though it's usually fleeting.

"They say things like, 'It wasn't anything we did: It was all the economy; the regulators had it out for us; if we had only had more time it would have been all okay.'"

Some experience intense anger, then an overwhelming sense of loss. Not only are the bank and their job gone, but so is their position of prestige in the community. They might be stigmatized, and other bankers might be reluctant to associate with them.

This prompts some to move elsewhere, so they can be free of encumbered reputations, Martin says.

But then comes the work of figuring out how to move on with their lives. Finding work is necessary for many former CEOs, because losing their bank - where most of their retirement was tied up - can be financially devastating, says James Rockett, a partner at Bingham McCutchen LLP in San Francisco.

Jeffrey C. Gerrish, the chairman of Gerrish McCreary Smith Consultants LLC in Memphis, tells executives not to be shy about seeking positions at other institutions, whether in the top ranks or as lenders.

"They're not all bad bankers," Gerrish says. "There's some real talent out there."

Robert Horsman had been the CEO of the $3.6 billion-asset San Diego National Bank before it failed in October. U.S. Bancorp absorbed the bank along with the eight others banks owned by FBOP Corp. in Oak Park. Ill., and two weeks later announced Horsman as regional chairman for U.S. Bank in San Diego.

U.S. Bank would not comment for this story. But Sean Foley, its regional chairman for Southern California, said at the time he did not want to lose Horsman, who is so active in local groups, including the opera, the zoo, the chamber of commerce and a variety of charities, that he has become somewhat of a local institution himself.

Still, others get out of the banking industry altogether. Cynthia Grazian, former CEO of the $209 million-asset InBank in Oak Forest, Ill., resigned in June, under regulatory pressure. The bank failed three months later.

Grazian, 50, wants to write about the experience, so she is taking graduate classes in creative nonfiction writing.

"I just want to memorialize the whole debacle," she says.

Like Hawker, some retire and find joy in volunteer work.

Steve Herbert has kept busy with his church in Columbia, S.C., since NetBank closed in September 2007. Herbert had become the CEO of the $2.5 billion-asset bank and its parent company, NetBank Inc., in Alpharetta, Ga., the year before, moving up from chief financial officer.

Most of his church activities - serving on the finance committee, teaching Bible classes, driving the elderly to church, feeding the homeless - had once filled his free time after work. But now the volunteering is what he does full time, while taking odd jobs as a handyman to help make ends meet. "Before, some of my perceptions of self-worth could not help but be associated with the work positions and titles that I held," says Herbert, 53. "Afterwards, I had to see if I could feel 'fulfilled' and 'important' based on being a Sunday school teacher and church volunteer."

Hawker had been the CEO of County Bank and its parent, the $1.8 billion-asset Capital Corp. of the West, since 1991. He stepped aside in August 2008, six months before the bank failed from heavy losses on residential development loans.

In absorbing County Bank, the notoriously efficient Westamerica Bancorp in San Rafael, Calif., closed many overlapping branches and let go about 150 employees, or about 30 percent of its workforce.

In redirecting his energies to volunteerism, Hawker found the China experience so gratifying that he is planning to go back again to mentor other missionaries and is contemplating a similar trip to Turkey. These trips are coordinated by a Chicago nonprofit organization, The Evangelical Alliance Mission, which lends support and other resources to missionaries. Hawker pays the travel expenses himself, with the help of donations from family and friends throughout the country.

He says the missionaries, who are of various Christian denominations, started businesses such as hostels and cafes, to help fund their stay and allow them to interact more with Chinese people, whether as employees or vendors. The intent is not only to minister to them, but to help them economically.

Hawker's new life direction was not exactly what he had envisioned, but the change has brought its own grace. "The FDIC's actions against the bank closed a number of doors on some of the things I thought I would do when I retired, such as consulting or being an interim bank CEO," he says. "But in the spring I just felt a real call to see what I could do to use my skills in ways that I had not previously thought about. Business consulting on short-term mission projects provides me an opportunity to feel like I'm needed."

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.