The first time I got laid off, it hit me like a semi-truck. I’d recently been promoted, was receiving great performance reviews, and saw a long-term future of work at a company I enjoyed where I’d managed two regional functions and built relationships across multiple offices.
Then, poof! Just like that, I received a call at 5pm on a Tuesday saying my job was gone. It was 2002 and I was working for Arthur Anderson.
I was shocked, terrified and completely lost. My core identity had been ripped away, even though I’d been doing everything right – working long hours, taking initiative to volunteer for extra projects, and even earning a Masters Degree in the evenings (despite my high school guidance counselor hinting my test scores weren’t college worthy). Often, I would return to the office at 10pm after class to prove I was dedicated. To top it off, when this happened, I was in the middle of a divorce and a cross-country relocation, so the timing couldn’t have been worse.
After applying desperately online for months, it seemed inevitable I’d be asking my parents if I could rent my old bedroom. All my professional contacts were in the same position of looking for new employment, and the brand I had once been proud to be associated with was now a bad joke in the marketplace.
One night in passing, I shared my sob story with my neighbor, mentioning the companies where I’d been applying, only to learn that his colleague was married to a Director at one of my top choices. He offered to pass my resume along and within two weeks, I had an interview. After months of online applications resulting in zilch, one brief conversation landed me an opportunity. In that moment, I realized the problem wasn’t that I hadn’t been working hard enough, but rather I was focusing my energy in the wrong places.
If your career has been significantly disrupted in the last six months, you’re not alone. Maybe you’ve been applying online without success and are dealing with competing challenges like trying to homeschool young children? It feels like an out-of-control roller coaster going off the rails and makes you wonder how you ticked off the karma gods to deserve this nightmare.
I’ve been there, and it’s terrifying and overwhelming to realize that even after struggling to climb the ladder, a bad few months can knock you right back to the bottom rung. These are highly unsettling times, and while I wouldn’t wish this hardship on anyone, there is some good news. You will get through it, and you will be stronger for it. In fact, despite how it might feel, you’re not even close to the bottom of the ladder and haven’t lost as much as it might seem. Right now, you’re actually building your resilience, resourcefulness and adaptability, which are key skills for the future of work and can only, unfortunately, be acquired by enduring tough times.
You may also feel angry and frustrated. I certainly did back in 2002, and eventually I used that anger to fuel my actions to create the career I have today, helping people get unstuck, find satisfying work and feel in control of their careers, regardless of what’s happening in the economy. And I want to share how you can make that happen, because even if this is the first time you’ve found yourself in an unexpected career situation, it certainly won’t be the last.
Even before Covid-19, the professional world was changing rapidly with technology advances, globalization, contract roles, delayed retirement, and a growing misalignment between education and marketable skills. The pandemic has accelerated this, decimating industries, turning office buildings into ghost towns, and catapulting technology into the center of all our lives from Zoom family meetings to contactless payment structures.
Switchers ARE the future of work, and you need to be ready to reinvent, not just now, but likely every few years for the remainder of your professional career. A career switcher is someone who makes an industry change, functional change, or both in their career trajectory. And if you haven’t made a major pivot, chances are it’s only a matter of time before you’re forced to, perhaps at the least convenient moment. So why not get ahead of it?
The painful lesson I learned 20 years ago and some may be experiencing today is: stellar skills and hard work aren’t enough. In addition, it’s critical to have a strong network of diverse connections (inside and outside your company) with people who know your brand and are willing to go to bat for you. These three things – 1) marketable skills, 2) a visible brand and 3) a strong network are a foundation I’ve built my career upon, and it’s not only worked for me but hundreds of others whom I’ve had the privilege to coach.
And it'll work for you. Switchers are the future of work, so here’s how you can get ready:
Step 1 – Mindset. One of the most important steps in taking control of your career is taking control of that voice in your head. The one that tells you you’re not good enough, things are too unfair, it’s not the best time or it won’t work. Our thoughts create our mindset and to be a successful switcher, you need to be your own biggest cheerleader. If you’re thinking, “I have no idea where to begin” you’re in good company. Many industries and functions are emerging or evolving and we’re all learning at the same time.
I had a client who had worked at one company for 25 years and was convinced he had no option other than to ride out his career there, even though new leadership had created a toxic culture. Making a big change was scary as hell after 25 years, so he used this incorrect and untested belief to accept it. But after working together, developing a list of accomplishments with transferable skills and speaking to his network, he started to see himself differently and his mindset shifted. He landed a great job a few months later and laughs when he remembers how scary it felt to make a move.
It’s okay to feel fear, but take small steps forward regardless. Don’t wait until you know it’s the right step – just take action. Each step forward helps you see things from a new vantage point. So, do you have an untested belief that’s holding you back? Action kills anxiety, so try something new today and see where it leads.
Step 2 – Reinvention. Part of the reason a career switch is so scary is because it requires us to shed – or at least alter – an identity we’ve become attached to. This is no small task and most don’t realize how comfortable we’ve gotten in how we identify with our careers. Changing makes us vulnerable – we’re pursuing something we don’t feel we have expertise in, which can be difficult if you’ve built up a reputation in your field as the “go-to” person.
But reinventing ourselves is something we’re all going to need to get comfortable with as the market continues to morph. Those who grasp tightly to old ways of doing things will be left behind, so now is a great time to start looking at your experience more holistically. Reflect on ALL your roles, education, projects, volunteer positions, certifications and experiences and you’ll see you have many transferable skills. Identify which are most in-demand in today’s marketplace and how you can present yourself as a problem solver for key challenges. Also, this exercise can help to identify skills gaps so you can proactively pursue opportunities to close those gaps.
While two-thirds of Americans believe technology will eventually take over about 50% of current roles, over 80% of those same people believe their roles won’t be impacted. Clearly, there’s a disconnect. We need to face the reality our careers will look different in the not too distant future. No one is going to manage your career as well as you, so make it a habit to focus on reinventing periodically, even (or especially!) in good economic times. You’re more than your title, so don’t sell yourself short.
Step 3 – Brand. Once you begin to look at yourself more holistically, not just as a title or label, but rather as a complex package of experiences, knowledge and abilities, you’ll be able to more clearly understand the value you bring to the market, and especially your target audience, and how your skills can solve their biggest pain points. Your target audience can be found by asking yourself the question, “What problems do I want to solve and who is doing that work?” The key is to brand yourself as the solution to your audience’s problems, in how you introduce yourself, your online content, through your network – visibly be the candidate they’re looking for.
This may mean removing some irrelevant items from your resume, and no longer using titles to identify yourself, but instead introducing yourself with your value. I had a client who was an attorney and wanted to work in HR and the moment she stopped introducing herself as a lawyer who wanted to be in HR, but rather an accomplished corporate professional who helped design policies to protect employees, she started to get interest from hiring managers.
If creating a professional brand is a new concept, get insights from people who know you. Friends can be valuable sources of information regarding strengths and achievements we sometimes fail to give ourselves adequate credit for.
Step 4 – Ambassadors. As you reinvent, it’s your responsibility to help those in your network to see you in a new way, including the value you bring to your target audience. If your contacts understand your brand, they can be ambassadors for you, opening the door to potential opportunities or relaying helpful information during your job search. We know more than 70% are jobs are filled before they’re advertised, and referrals account for 40% of hires even though they’re only 7% of applicants. If your primary strategy is online applications, you’re not only competing with 100% of the applicants for only 30% of available jobs, but you’re missing out on some great roles that may never go public.
One of the easiest ways to network is to start with people you know – those who already trust you and want to see you succeed. They have their own circles of contacts who can likely help if you’re clear and specific in what you need. Don’t underestimate anyone – social media has expanded all our networks and you may be surprised at what emerges.
One time, I mentioned to my brother I was trying to land a speaking gig at a company in NY. Coincidentally, his good friend in Utah, knew the head of the organization, which after a few emails, ended with me giving that talk 6 months later. It’s a little shocking someone in my immediate family had access to contacts I didn’t, but it’s easy to forget we all interact with diverse groups of people every day – at work, online, in the community – everywhere.
Make it easy for your contacts to help by sharing the language they can use to introduce you, having a clear goal and asking for something they are uniquely able to offer. Then, you’ll start seeing results!
The future of work is here. The pandemic opened our eyes to the fact that job security is a myth, even for high achievers. Also, change is not only constant in the marketplace, but now it’s accelerated. Companies are struggling with the same ambiguity and uncertainty that we are as individuals. Our careers are not their priority. But, they need to be our priority.
It’s time to take control of your career before it takes control of you.