Article

Paula Sáenz López 27 April 2020

Surviving a Career Crisis

Crises can hit anyone at any time. Also, they come in different shapes and sizes. Those like the Covid-19 pandemic have caused global destruction in a matter of weeks; tornadoes and hurricanes can wreak havoc in a matter of hours or days. Individual crises- for example, those related to executive careers- can be just as devastating for the individual concerned (and their loved ones), and often continue for months and years. Sometimes, career crises may be triggered by factors outside one’s control. For example, industry consolidation or strategic M&A may lead to job losses or result in a business or functional head having to report to someone from the acquiring company, leading to unhappiness. A crisis may also be precipitated by an individual’s own unwillingness or inability to change with the times and align with the company’s strategic priorities.

Irrespective of the cause, there’s no question that career-related crises are difficult to cope with. But the silver lining is that there are actions that one can take to respond and better still, reduce the risk of occurrence of such crises. As an executive search professional working with global clients and having placed numerous middle and senior-level executives in different segments of the consumer industry, I have seen from close quarters many executives struggle with such crises. Some came out stronger and soared, while others did not.

With job losses and cutbacks looming large as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic, these are difficult times. I hope the simple and practical suggestions posted below will be useful to help you, your colleagues, and your loved ones to navigate the crisis in their respective careers.

  1. Is it really a crisis?

The first thing is to establish if your situation is indeed a crisis or just a bout of listlessness and self-doubt that hits the best of us every once in a while. Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What is causing this feeling of discontented and demotivation in me? (it could be your work, people, lack of prospects, a disappointment because your peers are “doing better” etc.)
  2. How long have I been feeling like this? (is it a sudden feeling or has it been building up over the past several months and maybe even years?)
  3. Am I successful? What are the measures I use to determine “success” and do these successes bring me joy? (remember that there are always trade-offs- for example, the decision to not relocate to another part of the country or world for whatever reason may mean that you may forfeit growth opportunities)
  4. Would I be happy in this industry/function/company for the next 5 years? If not, why not?
  5. What would my ideal job profile be in say 5 years? (think industry, company, role, location, etc.)

Answer the questions honestly and you will discover evidence of whether your situation has been festering for some time- and is hence a “crisis”- or whether it’s a storm caused by short-term factors and will likely blow over soon.

  1. Reflect on your experiences thus far to build momentum to surge forward

When was the last time you critically evaluated your CV/resume? If you have not been looking for a change, not for a while, I bet. Make use of the lockdown to introspect on all that you have done so far and how you have described it in your CV. And then rewrite your CV, focusing on your achievements in a way that highlights your strengths. Trust me when I say you will be surprised at how you can repurpose your CV to create something much more focused, powerful, and impactful.

Use this exercise to create a version of your CV that will appeal to hiring managers in the companies, industries, and roles you aspire for. That’s the first step towards giving your career the momentum you are looking for.

  1. Work your contacts and networks

When was the last time you connected with people in your industry via LinkedIn? Or posted an article you wrote in your area of expertise (or about a topic you are passionate about and have something to say)? If you are like the majority of executives, you’re probably thinking “wow, that was several months ago!”. The intentions to do all this exist, but get pushed to the backburner very quickly in the face of work (and often, laziness and the tendency to procrastinate). There are always ready excuses to explain why you did not write that article you’ve been thinking about or joining that LinkedIn group. But remember that you are your best friend- especially during a personal crisis. Sure, there are others who can help, but you need to enable them to help you. That means reaching out to exchange information, float ideas, explore possibilities. If you have professional contacts in other companies (maybe a former colleague moved some time ago or your college friend works there), speak to them to get information and perspectives.

Headhunters are often a rich source of information about industry trends, what kind of people companies are looking for, and which companies are in hiring mode and which may start in a few months. Some recruitment firms may actually have openings for you to consider; even if they don’t have anything right away, such conversations afford the opportunity for both sides to get to know each other well so that as and when the right openings arise, you are top of mind. Make sure the headhunter has your updated, repurposed CV. You can even seek their inputs on how to enhance their effectiveness.

  1. Be proactive within your current organization

A promotion may not be immediately around the corner but you can signal to your managers that you have what it takes to be promoted- and principal amongst this is the eagerness to learn new things and go beyond the call of duty. Volunteer for new projects (ideally, those that go beyond your regular work). Cross-functional teams set up by the CEO or other senior leaders for special strategic projects are a great way to get visibility while also acquiring new skills and capabilities. But do not volunteer just for the ride: it is important that you punch above your weight so that you are noticed and make a deep impression on those who will later make decisions around career growth and promotions.

Discuss with your manager what training programs you want to attend and why. Demonstrate how you plan to utilize what you learn to add value to your work, the team, and the entire organization. Be bold enough to include this in your goals so you can be measured transparently. If you take new approaches to your work (after the training), highlight it (and the outcomes) to your managers. Besides gaining personal visibility, this is also a great way to get additional mileage in your performance evaluation discussions.

Perhaps the most important suggestion I can offer is to be mentally strong during such times. Do not despair, or display impatience. Positive change doesn’t necessarily happen fast. It’s like losing weight in a way. We gain weight over months and years, and yet expect to shed those extra kilograms in a matter of days or weeks. I hate to break it to you, but that’s not going to happen. You probably let the crisis simmer for months together and now you need to give it at least as much time to resolve it. Remember that a crisis can be an opportunity to achieve what you’ve always to but have been too scared to try or too comfortable in your zone of comfort. These are difficult times, but they too shall pass. Stay safe and work hard at proving your value in the emerging world that promises to be very different from the one we left behind just a couple of months ago.

If you believe you are going through career doubts or even a crisis, feel free to reach out to me at paula@ls-international.com  for career or industry advice, and don’t hesitate to tell me your thoughts on how to survive a career crisis.