Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Resolution For 2009: Lose Your Job

The end of a year is when we tend to reflect on the recent past and make some of our most ambitious plans for year ahead. Paths not taken are re-explored. Lists are drawn up. Priorities are set. Alcohol is consumed. (Note: Proper sequencing of the aforementioned has a direct impact on the results.)

Unfortunately, the beginning of the New Year is often a time of disappointment. We frequently fall short of our lofty and hastily assembled goals, sometimes before the dawn’s ugly light of January 2nd (but I digress).

By many accounts, 2008 is a year that many of us would like to forget. The world (and certainly the United States) is rapidly moving past economic recession into a depression (not just another great depression, but an awesome depression). If you haven’t been paying attention to the banking and economic crises of the past 12-18 months because “it doesn’t affect me”, you’re in for a nasty wake-up call in 2009. Unless you’re independently self-sufficient in everything that you do, the dependencies you have on your job, your community, and your ecosystems are going to be shaken to their core.

At the end of 2008, you’re in one of two camps: Those who still have a job, and those who joined the growing ranks of the unemployed. I want to address the second group first. You have my deepest empathy. I’ve been where you are several times in my careers, and it is one of the most debilitating and terrifying challenges life can throw at you in a free society. In 2009, I’m going to share with you some thoughts and resources that hopefully can aid you in your hunt for new employment.

The remainder of this article directed at the first group, but it is by no means exclusive to you.

2008 has given you a tremendous gift – the gift of working on borrowed time. You don’t have an excuse for being satisfied with the status quo of doing your same job every day. Doing only what your management asks, hitting only the metrics they give you, being satisfied just with satisfactory performance are sure ways to go unnoticed by people you infrequently speak with – those who ultimately decide whether or not you stay employed with your current company.

We’re all human beings (yes, lawyers too) and we all share a similar response mechanism to perceived or real threats – fight or flight. In economic downturns, traditionally (bad) advice to employment threats is to keep your nose to the grindstone (ouch!) and just keep doing your job. That strategy is particularly bad in today’s downturn, both for you, and your company. Hunkering down and hoping that the bean counters won’t notice you not only efficiently gets you into the layoff queue - it enables your company to make spectacularly horrid mistakes by severing talent and skills they never knew they had, and ironically will hire someone else to do the exact same job when the tides turn.

Corporate myopia doesn’t discriminate between large and small businesses. You may be the best widget maker or most effective manager in your department, but that doesn’t matter when your company’s business plans become obsolete overnight. When that happens in 2009 (if it hasn’t already) you’ll face a real possibility of being declared redundant, unless you’ve anticipated this situation and taken steps to prevent it.

The secret to effective career management (as well as to staying gainfully employed) is to lose your job. No, I don’t mean quit, or become unemployed. I mean, lose the idea of your individual identity in a company as being just a cog in the machine. If you objectify what you do as nothing but a job, i.e. tasks to check off on a list, you will only be seen as an object in times of poor business performance. Business, by definition, is impersonal. If you personally take responsibility for the growth of your performance, and its relationship to the growth of your company, you will create paths and opportunities for both yourself, and your company which will have directly measurable impacts to revenue.

I learned this very real lesson with my current employer in my third month on the job (to date, I’ve worked here for over six years). Soon after I was hired, new management was brought in by the board of directors to take the company in a completely different direction. All assets (products, resources) were examined closely as the new business plans were drawn up. The CEO interviewed all employees one by one, and when he came to me, we had a short interview, and gave me a very honest appraisal.

“Frankly, I don’t know what you do.”

I had just landed this job after having previously been out of work for nine months. To say my CEO’s appraisal of me didn’t sit well was an understatement. But, I took this as an opportunity to demonstrate to him, and myself, just what I did do. Failure was already built in, so anything that I did and demonstrated on some level didn’t matter, because I had already accepted that I had lost my job – the paychecks that kept coming were simply borrowed time.

What I lost then, and continue to lose to this day, you should as well - especially in the uncharted economic waters ahead.

  • Lose the idea that your employment is secure, even if you’re a top performer and your management has told you so. Expect the unexpected, like losing your employment tomorrow. Yes, this is a death experience. Die, mourn, pick up the pieces, and move on.

  • Lose the notion that life is fair, or that rules can’t change in a heartbeat. Whining is not a path to promotion (except in national politics).

  • Lose the idea that anyone else has your interests at heart more than you do.

  • Lose the crutch of hope. As Jim Cramer says, “Hope is not an investment strategy”. If your action plan for 2009 is to hope that things get better…hoo boy.

  • Lose the idea that problems that affect your day to day tasks are someone else’s problems to worry about, even if they are. A problem that affects your performance is an opportunity for you to excel and help get that problem solved. Never stop looking for ways to improve yourself or your company.

  • Lose the fear that comes with facing a loss of your livelihood. This is hard, but it is an essential skill to master before you need it. Fear engenders paralysis, and paralysis means someone else will have more control of your performance, and your fate.

  • Lose the complacency about being measured by metrics that you haven’t had a direct hand in shaping or discussing with your management. If you don't know how you're being measured, you risk working towards irrelevant goals. If you do know how you're being measured, and the metrics are inadequate, work with your management to change the metrics. The process will benefit both you, and your company.

  • Lose ignoring your potential as a brand. Excellence speaks for itself, and often it carries a name. Focus on continually excelling beyond your limits, and you’ll develop personal and professional brand value.

  • Lose the idea that you can’t make a direct impact to your company’s products, services, and revenue.

  • Lose any lack of passion about what you do, even if you’re doing “what ya gotta do”. If you’re just punching a clock so that in 30 years you won’t have to, you’ve got much bigger problems than I can address here.

If you can’t see yourself doing any of what I’ve outlined with your current employer, then all I can give you is a consolation prize – the knowledge that you need to move on. In this environment, that’s difficult, but you should still take the ideas I’ve outlined as benefits that you would expect to be able to bring to a new employer, and be prepared to speak to them as you interview.

Above all, as you make your resolutions for 2009, make one additional (sober) resolution:

Don’t Panic.


Swan said...

Great post. There are so many in our society who have a sense of entitlement.

However, I would bet that your readership is slanted towards people who are more liberated than that.

Jim Belfiore said...

Thanks for the comment! I would agree that many members of society believe they are "owed" a living (or even a chance) simply based on an individual perception of inequity.

My readership is relatively small (but growing). As to any slant, I'd say (with the utmost respect) that most of them are prone to unconscious, unintentional, self-made barriers.

Swan said...

Well, as fellow-innovators, we both know the barriers to change.

Here are a few more business resolutions your readers might enjoy:

Mark McGuinness said...

Awesome post, a real antidote to complacency. A bit like Seneca's advice to his rich friend who was accused by the emperor Nero and in danger of losing everything -- imagine the worst, then imagine what you will do next. It won't be pleasant, but somehow you'll deal with it.

And Seneca ate his own dog food -- when he was stripped of all his possessions and banished to the northern wastes, he said that his goods and status had been taken from him, but not torn from him, as he had been careful not to get attached to them.

Jim Belfiore said...

Mark - Thanks so much, I really appreciate your feedback.

I'm seeing some of the brightest minds in venerable companies get the axe after a decade or more of solid productivity, because they mistakenly yielded control of their future to their employer. "I never saw this coming" is a phrase I'm hearing every week.

For those of you reading this article, there's a link (at the bottom) to a fabulous article by Mark McGuinness, "How to Motivate People During a Recession". When you manage an army of one, a global business unit, or anything in-between, you really should read his piece.

Rebecca said...

Wow, fabulous post. I'll link to it soon. It made me think about the notion of impermanence in careers nowadays, not just as a result of the recession, but because careers are shifting. Great advice.