Surviving a Downturn

Managing Your Career in an Unstable Economy

Surviving a Downturn - Managing Your Career in an Unstable Economy

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Keep your team in the loop.

Economic highs and lows move in cycles. We see "boom and bust," ups and downs, over and over again. This doesn't mean that your career has to follow the fortunes of the economy exactly, though.

There's a lot that you can do to maximize your chances of staying employed during a recession, and to ensure you're best placed once things pick up again. And here's the most interesting part: Most of the strategies you need are useful during a strong economy as well.

Anything that pushes you to pay closer attention to your environment, and makes you a more valuable member of staff, is good – no matter what.

The Two-Part Plan

A good strategy for an economic downturn involves two basic elements:

  1. Creating value as an employee.
  2. Understanding your environment.

The strategies you'll learn in each area will help you survive – and succeed – in your organization. Your "survival" in your job may depend on your flexibility, cleverness, and creativity. What's more, if you think about how to survive now, you'll be well prepared to change direction if the need arises.

Creating Value as an Employee

It's a fact of life that downturns and recessions often lead to layoffs. As the economy weakens, companies have to cut costs. And the result of that is job loss.

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Your goal is to keep your job. What's the best way to do that? Do fantastic work.

The first people to go are usually those who contribute the least value. This is particularly true if you're one of several people on your team with similar or identical job descriptions. Who would want to lay off a star performer? Prove your value in a variety of ways:

Work Smarter

  • Connect your work with the bottom line. Where you can, focus on activities that directly generate revenue and profit for your company, or directly benefit it.
  • Be flexible with your priorities. Economic instability leads to a volatile environment – both internally and externally. Be prepared to change your own priorities as organizational priorities change
  • Stand out from your co-workers. Be more productive than the rest of the people on your team.
  • Be visible. The more people who know you and the quality of your work, the better.
  • Promote yourself. Do more than expected, take on additional work, and find ways to work closely with your boss.
  • Build interpersonal skills. People usually prefer to work with agreeable, pleasant individuals. Help out, treat others with respect, be friendly and supportive, and bring a positive attitude to work every day.
  • Keep track of what you do. Be able to prove your value, and the importance of your role.
  • Maintain a clean work area. This may sound silly, but impressions are very important. When your work is neat, others may assume you have things under control. Companies see this as a valuable quality.
  • Control costs. When things are going well, it can make sense to spend money reasonably freely – this allows you to take quick advantage of new opportunities. In a downturn, "cash is king". Be frugal, and help your company cut costs sensibly.
  • Keep working positively. If there are rumors of bad news, many people will get depressed and drift. Keep thinking positively and, if change does occur, make sure that "you're part of the solution, not part of the problem"

Doing a better job with the resources you have is only one part of enhancing the value you offer. You should also acquire new skills and become more valuable by increasing the depth and scope of your contributions.

But remember that in a downturn, training budgets are typically the first to be cut. Here are some creative ways to maintain a continuous learning attitude

Keep Learning

Commit yourself to continuous learning.

  • Look for self-directed learning opportunities. Mind Tools is a great example!
  • Read everything you can about your field.
  • Share knowledge with your team and colleagues.
  • Learn about other departments. What work do they do, and what do they need to complete their objectives? "Lunch and learn" sessions are a great way to accomplish this – in other words, invite a colleague to lunch to learn about what he or she does, or get departments together in larger groups.
  • Volunteer. For maximum value, choose an area of work that you'd like to learn more about and that would benefit your company.
  • Consider funding further education. It may be worth it to pay for outside classes.

Remember that your co-workers are probably working hard too. To survive a downturn, be prepared to do more and be more creative than others. That means keeping a close watch on what's happening around you and adjusting your plans accordingly.

Understanding Your Environment

You should be concerned about three key "environmental" elements: your work environment, the "macro" economy, and your personal environment.

Your Work Environment

Know what's happening around you, and look for ways to work intelligently.

  • What is your department's reputation? Are you in a strong position because of the work you do? Use some of the tips mentioned earlier to increase the overall value of your work.
  • What is your boss's reputation? Working for an influential person is a big plus during a downturn. Find ways to become known by people with great reputations.
  • Look for changes in strategy and direction. Understand how these changes may affect you and your team. When you're aware of what's driving company performance, you can better adjust your work and priorities to maximize your overall value. To learn more about performance drivers, see Performance Management and KPIs (key performance indicators). In particular, be aware that there's likely to be a huge pressure for organizations to cut costs during a downturn, which can mean the closure of unprofitable ventures or programs. Be alert to this.
  • Watch for all job vacancies in your company. Job openings don't necessarily have to be in your department, and the positions may not yet be available. When you evaluate potential intra-organizational career changes, keep in mind the total value of the role and the skill set that you can transfer. However, be aware that if jobs need to be cut, it may be rational for organizations to operate on a "last in, first out" basis. Evaluate risks carefully before you make a move.

The "Macro" Economy

Just as your company's "micro" environment is important, so is what's happening in the outside world. Understanding these larger forces will help you make better long-term plans.

  • Look at your industry and other industries. Which are most impacted by current events? Try to predict the downturn's effect on your specific industry, sector, and company (don't be too pessimistic – many different factors will affect this.) If your company is on the edge of the affected area, you may be able to relax more and wait for things to improve.
  • Analyze trend data about which careers are dying or becoming more in demand. Figure out where your career fits in, and be prepared to change directions if necessary. The sooner you start planning, the better.
  • Prepare for dramatic changes. Think beyond your community, and identify what's taking place nationally and globally. What big risks are you facing? What opportunities are opening up that you might not have considered before?

Your Personal Environment

Protecting yourself is extremely important in a downturn. If your company goes out of business and/or you lose your job, you need to know that you'll survive.

  • Update your résumé. You might never need it. But if you do, you don't want to rush at the last minute to describe what you've done for the past 10 years.
  • Write one or two cover letters. Again, this puts you in a position to act quickly if you need to.
  • Network, network, network. It's so important to develop a set of people you can contact for information, ideas, and potential jobs. Include family, friends, and colleagues as a way to learn about a wide variety of opportunities. See Professional Networking to help you put together a great plan.
  • Think about ways to repackage your skills. Think about which skills you can transfer to other fields and jobs. Assess the opportunities, and look at how well your competencies match other job requirements. Where there are gaps, make a plan to acquire the knowledge and skills you need.
  • Remain calm and levelheaded. When times are hard, it's easy to panic and do something unwise. It's also easy to ignore what's going on around you, and blindly hope for the best. Make sure that you make decisions calmly and rationally, based on the best information you have available to you.
  • Look at all your options. This might be a good time to reassess your long-term career goals and determine what kind of changes would work best for you. Downturns create opportunities as well as problems.
  • Assess your personal finances. The ability to make a career plan and stick to it often depends on having the economic resources to maintain your lifestyle. If you suddenly get laid off, you should have at least three to six months of living expenses set aside. This way, you won't have to take the first job that comes along.

    And don't count on pay raises or bonuses with a new job – you might end up with a pay cut, so look at the worst-case scenario when budgeting.

    Realistically, many people don't have this level of savings. If this includes you, now's the time to review your finances, so that you can build up this buffer.

Key Points

While you don't control the economy, you can often control how the changes will affect you.

You have choices, so don't panic or let fear rule your behavior. Take some time to review your resources, and put yourself in the most employable position you can. Don't just settle for what happens to you.

Be proactive, think about your long-term career strategy, and be smart about your choices. You can survive and succeed in a downturn if you maximize your value, understand and manage key elements of your environment, and prepare yourself properly.