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Career Advice in a Recession

Posted by Bob Corlett on April 1, 2020

When economic times are good, most people with common skills usually don't have much trouble finding and keeping a job. But in an economic downturn, it's far more important to be strategic about your career choices. Things are going to be very uneven in the job market, with some skills remaining in desperately short supply, and other skills enduring massive layoffs.

The key elements of a good career recession strategy include:

  • Assess the strength of your employer. It’s more important than ever to work for an organization with economic strength (either deep financial reserves, a very stable source of funding, or a brilliant strategy to thrive in tough times.) Being part of critical infrastructure, a recipient of significant government funding, or otherwise insulated from the inevitable economic downturn is ideal. But strategic strength is equally or more important. Even if you are in a "safe" industry, if you don't have trust in your leadership team to navigate this economy, start looking for a new job right now. Back in the 2009 downturn, I developed a leadership acid test - perhaps you'll find it useful.
  • Importance of your role. You will benefit immensely if your job is deemed “mission critical” to the organization right now (especially if you can work from home). Although hiring freezes may occur in some organizations, mission critical jobs are rarely frozen. You probably cannot make your own job more mission critical where you are, but other organizations might value your skills differently. If you don't have faith that your skills are considered valuable by your current employer, either find a way to create a lot more value where you work, or consider going to an organization that does value your skill. Some bosses think that they will be able to hire great people for less money as the recession drags on. And that might or might not be true depending on your skills, but this is not the time to be perceived as someone who is not at the top of their game. (Keep reading for ways to create more value in your work.)
  • Strategic thinking. Now that all the pre-COVID-19 rules have been permanently upended, you cannot follow the playbook that worked for you last year and just improve upon it a little bit. What worked for 2019 does not matter any more. You need to learn what is important right now, think deeply about what has changed, and help to improvise new solutions (and then be ready to change again next week). To do that, you need to be keenly aware of the external landscape around your organization, and keep finding ways to observe changes. Your job needs to adapt to the ecosystem around you, and your priorities will change as that landscape changes. If you are not sure how to do this, find out what your bosses boss reads, who they talk to, what metrics they measure, and how they interpret what they hear. If you are customer-facing in your work, that's ideal. Talk to your customers, listen, learn from them, synthesize and distill what you hear, and share that information with the people around you. Take this opportunity to improve your strategic thinking skills.
  • Be shrewd about people. Warren Buffet observed, "Only when the tide goes out do you discover who's been swimming naked." Top performers in one situation often fail when circumstances change. Some previously successful colleagues might be flailing now, while you and others might be more successful. Be ready to rethink your role, and who you can rely on.
  • Adaptability. Dealing with ambiguity has been an important factor for decades, but never more than right now. Some people like established guidelines, and others perform better when the rules are being invented as you go along. Here's how to identify people who can handle ambiguity.
  • Communication. When you are moving fast, and trying new things, you’ll need to over-communicate to your direct reports and colleagues, and explain why you are making the changes. Otherwise you’ll just end up working at cross purposes. If you find your colleagues going in the wrong direction, it’s not them; it’s a sign you under-invested in communicating. HINT: This does not mean sending more long emails and instant messages. It means adapting your communications strategy to the situation. (If you are keeping other people informed, ask what information they want, in what form, and how often - their information needs are probably different now.)
  • Prioritization. All that thinking, and changing, and communicating, and reorienting takes time. You'll be less efficient, your team and maybe some of your vendors will be less efficient. So you’ll need to stop doing some things so you can prioritize the most essential elements of your job. If you don’t, you'll never get the big important stuff right, and that is definitely NOT something you want to risk doing in a recession.
  • Compassion. It's stressful right now, working from home, with sometimes imperfect tools and surroundings. It’s stressful to worry about your family and career, community, nation and world. We are all surrounded by worried people who have varied and difficult personal situations. It’s disconcerting, and it can be easy to overlook the importance of compassion in our every action. People will long remember how you made them feel during this time. Be human first.
  • Learning new stuff. You're going to be acquiring new skills, and learning how to do things you've never done before (presenting info in a video conference comes to mind). You'll need to use new tools, coordinate with new people in new ways, pursue unfamiliar opportunities, leave behind comfortable habits, and move forward with imperfect information in the face of crippling uncertainty. You'll need to achieve measurable impact in the face of ambiguity. Remember, anything worth doing is worth doing badly at first. Jump in, and try to laugh at your initial feeble efforts. You'll either get better at the new thing, or better at shrugging it off. It's a win either way.
  • Humility. You’ll make a TON of mistakes, and need to apologize for a wide range of embarrassing outcomes. Get over it; we’re all doing that now. Own your failures, and learn from them. Get a little better every day.

So get going, the world needs you to step up now. Other people will be grateful for the example you provide, and the difference you make. And you just might find that you can make more of an impact than you ever thought possible.

Other resources:

Executive Job Search

Topics: Career Advice, Innovation and Change, Personal Productivity