January 16, 2009

How to manage your career in a recession

Filed under: Job Search, Success at Work

In my last posting I criticized The Wall Street Journal for its history of producing sophomoric and self-serving career advice. The newspaper publishes advertorials masquerading as articles. They are largely intended to drive readers to the Journal’s job listings. So much for editorial integrity.

But there is good advice to be had in lots of business publications. As I’ve pointed out, it’s not usually career advice. It’s guidance about business that can be readily applied to job hunting, hiring and career success. You just have to read between the lines and think.

An article in the January 19 edition of Fortune, How to manage your business in a recession, could easily have been re-cast as advice for managing your career in a recession. I won’t cover all 10 suggestions offered by Geoff Colvin, but I’ll try to show you how to translate some of them into useful career strategies.

Reset priorities to face the new reality. Colvin quotes a CEO who says companies have to abandon their strategic plans and deal with reality. As companies downsize massively and people with long career histories hit the street, too many will cling to their resumes and try to sell “who they are” so they can get another job like they had. Forget it. While it’s not impossible, the likelihood that you will find the same work you’ve always done is small. Your past experience is virtually meaningless now. However, your skills and abilities are even more paramount. But trying to apply them through your lifelong “strategic career plan” could ruin you. Face the new reality. And that reality is, What does a target company need, and how will you re-organize your skills and abilities to do a new kind of work? No company will figure that out for you. You must figure it out for yourself. Rather than planning the next step in your career, you must be able to cope with the shifting needs of the employers you want to work for. This idea is covered in detail in Richard Farson’s excellent Management of the Absurd. It’s a better career book than any career book.

Keep investing in the core. This is an important but overlooked tenet of business success that applies equally to career success. Thirty years ago, Tom Peters emphasized this idea in his book In Search of Excellence, but he referred to it as “sticking to the knitting.” Focus on what you do best, and get better at it. In an age where career writers love to pontificate about “what the hot jobs are” and people abandon their investments in themselves to chase what’s hot, the smart course is simple and compelling. Keep investing in what you do best and get better at it. We will all suffer in the downturn. But when the market turns back up, the winners will be those who are the best at what they do. The survivors. I’ll give you an example. I know expert mainframe computer programmers who were laughed at when pc’s and local area networks came to dominate corporate information technology. The smart ones didn’t abandon their core skills. While many of their cohorts ran toward the newest technologies, the mainframe guys (programmers in ancient languages like COBOL, APL, FORTRAN) cashed in on the never-ending demand for software maintenance and application-conversion engineering. They were the last men standing in their fields because they were the best. They earn top dollar today because they never stopped investing in their core skills. (I’m not knocking programmers who made the shift to new computer platforms and languages. But I’m crediting those who continued to develop core skills and made sure they were always “hot” — because “hot jobs” are only ephemeral.)

Your customers face new problems, so give them new solutions. I’m including this one because it’s a reprise of the “reset priorities” item above — and it puts a point on what matters most. What matters is the employer’s needs, not your resume. Job hunters waste tremendous energy trying to sell their resumes, to explain themselves, to promote their history, their credentials, their education, their accomplishments. Don’t defend your resume. Your resume is an old solution. Why do people expect a hiring manager to read a resume and figure out what to do with that package of history? Managers are lousy at that. Embattled employers don’t give a hoot what’s in your past if you can’t show them that you understand their problems — and show them how you will tackle them. Successful salespeople don’t talk about their products. They talk about a prospect’s problems. I guarantee you that in that light, your resume fails. Where are the solutions? Try a little Resume Blasphemy.

There are seven more ways outlined in the Fortune article about how to manage in this recession. If you’d like to talk about how they can be applied to career issues, we can do that — that’s what the comments section below is for. I just wanted to give you some examples of how some excellent career advice lurks in business advice.

Don’t look for help only where you’re told. Look where good ideas are, and use your noggin to apply them to your situation.

3 Comments on “How to manage your career in a recession”
By Ask The Headhunter® | Nick Corcodilos - Forget your job, distribute yourself
February 11, 2009 at 11:14 am

[...] already written about how some of the best career advice doesn’t come from career experts. It’s between the lines in business articles. [...]

By Ask The Headhunter® | Nick Corcodilos - Uh-oh. A good job board. If you wanna call it that.
March 6, 2009 at 3:38 pm

[...] not. There’s some good stuff online. I regularly try to point you to sites that publish non-career content that I think can be used to advance your career. Now I’m gonna show you a job board — [...]

By Ted Williams
March 22, 2009 at 12:30 pm

I love the advice of “keep investing in the core.” I have too many friends who always try to look what is going to happen next instead of doing what they do best.

Post a comment