Professional strategies for surviving turbulent times

Dr. Carol Kinsey Goman,
For many of us - even for most - these are the toughest and most nerve-wracking of times. A recent survey by the American Psychological Association indicated that financial concerns topped the list of stressors for at least 80% of those surveyed. More than half reported the most common symptoms of stress being anger, fatigue and an inability to sleep.

As I travel globally to speak for various organizations, I hear comments like this . . .

People who work here are afraid to take a day off or not work long hours because they will appear to be a non-asset. This is making morale plummet and is a cycle of destruction.

However, there is another side to the story.

I recently conducted a survey of over 200 professionals from the United States, Canada, and Europe to find out what people were doing personally and professionally to survive - or even thrive - in these turbulent times:


1) Look for ways to add value

I think there are a lot of career advantages in this recession, especially if you already have a job. Stepping up to the plate without being asked.  Looking for ways to make improvements in processes, procedures and especially cutting expenses is a great way to show you care and you are a valuable employee. Sitting around and fading into the background is not a good idea. No one is in a position to just "hang on" to their job.  Acting like and working like an owner really helps.  Demonstrating how much you care and want to get things done right the first time can speak volumes. Asking yourself, what can I do better, what can I do differently, what may need to be changed or improved. Continue to be a team player. When possible see where you may be able to help out a co-worker. This could have great advantages in itself especially if you gain more knowledge about a particular topic or process or learn something completely new. Again, you are making yourself more valuable to the company by becoming even more well rounded.

I've taken on special assignments and projects to become more integral. However, most of the cutbacks are not performance-based. Someone can be a top contributor and do everything right and still be impacted by the need to reduce costs and "become more efficient." However, having a positive attitude, an enthusiasm for life, and a work ethic that makes a difference are paramount in any field.

I'm trying to be indispensable by servicing the clients even better, and by being entrepreneurial, positive and proactive.

My hours have expanded due to an ever-increasing workload and fewer employees to get it done.  I'm learning to adapt to change more quickly, staying positive by walking for 20 minutes during lunch at least three times per week, and communicating with fellow co-workers in a positive fashion. It's difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but we need to approach our jobs and work life with an attitude of "my glass is half full" rather than the alternative.

I am now working hard to find unnecessary spending in my job duties and cut back where I can. This is something I may not have actively looked for in the past. We are not seeing much at work in terms of promotions, and have actually just recently had some layoffs.

I'm trying to go the extra mile and make my boss look good. I'm working on new concepts to take advantage of market declines.

Communications has never been more important than ever. We have a record number of requests. We are building in metrics to show the volume of our work and our impact.

I'm doing more proactive reputation management then ever before . . . getting involved in more cross-functional teams and touting my team's efforts in email summaries of key accomplishments and at executive staff meetings. Implementing more measurements then ever before and showcasing these results.

Thought: if you are just now trying to figure out how to make yourself indispensable you waited toooo long.

The layoffs at our company increased my workload until it was no longer manageable in balance with my family and my part time pursuit of my MBA. My solid savings account afforded me the ability to resign at the beginning of this year, but my reputation as a hard worker and a loyal contributor provided an unexpected compromise. My supervisors approached my resignation with a sincere desire to improve and change company practices, and we've patiently negotiated a way for me to continue to work toward solutions. As a result, I have the benefit of continued revenue and reduced hours, and the company saved a source of institutional knowledge that can help with process improvement. It's an old-fashioned win-win spurred by flexibility, confidence and a history of quality contributions.

Two things we did to position ourselves for the future seem contrary to managing expenses in difficult times, but they have worked out very well.

First, we actually purchased a second residence/office in Marietta, GA. Prices are so low and interest rates are so low that we got a great value. We had been thinking about doing this for some time because so much of my business is on the US East Coast and, for the last two years, over one-third of my revenue is coming from European clients. This way we reduce our costs and time for much of the cross-US traveling we're doing.

Second, I have been actively seeking out even more work in Europe where the financial systems are much more stable (other than the UK) due to conservative banking and home-buying policies. I've been doing a lot in Switzerland, France, the Netherlands and Belgium. I've also focused on some industries that are less affected by economic ups and downs, like pharmaceutical companies. I have worked in this industry quite a bit in past years, but have reached out to contacts even more so recently.

I see plenty of career advantages in this recession: by buckling down and showing my boss that I can move forward during times of difficulty and stress only proves to company leaders that I'm a committed team player who's willing to do what it takes to succeed and bring in results.

2) Develop skills.

I hope that this is a wake-up call and people understand the importance of investing in themselves and their skill sets.

I'm developing better computer skills. Also becoming more involved In Lean manufacturing at the plant.

I'm using this time to learn new skills and get up to date on technology.

I'm taking a very aggressive position on education.  My thinking is to not become influenced by the papers or news and to view today's challenges as events/conditions that we may not have properly or completely prepared for.  Therefore as we determine what actions to take to come out the other side of any threshold we might be temporarily stuck in we find that we have tremendous solutions to not only resolve the challenges but to improve our processes as well moving forward.  In so many ways a lot of the solutions are simply getting back to the basics and confirming that we do them well.

For myself during this time, stepping out of my comfort zone will be a big boost to my career. Taking the time to improve my skills and take them to the next level will be a career advantage for myself this year. 

I am using the time to redo my website, line up articles to write, and following up with work gleaned from pro bono presentations.

3) Have a job search strategy.

My position was eliminated last July. My company was going through several reorganizations and layoffs. Although I was safe from the first two rounds . . . you never know. My position was just not needed in the current scheme of things. So my next steps? We work at our jobs 8-10 hours. And that is how much time I devoted to job researching, searching, applying and networking. While I kept an open mind about the type of work, I was also realistic about my skills and what I wanted to or didn't want to include in a position. These efforts paid off. I had about a dozen phone interviews and almost the same in-person interviews.

I help others in their efforts to look for work. That means that two or more of us are looking and making contacts. Boomerang theory really works here! I had held a networking group for the first few months. We would meet for coffee or at the noon hour once every two weeks. We shared tips, resume writing feedback and our frustrations.

Lessons from previous job searches include: Never bring up salary unless they do. Often if they think you are wonderful and the right person, the salary can magically appear. And don't settle for less than your current base salary (the days of bonuses and incentives are fading away). That will only make you bitter and resentful in your new wonderful position. Having been a career counsellor and having many jobs myself, if you keep confident (not overconfident) about your job/self worth, you will not fail to bring in the appropriate compensation for your life's work.

I also believe you should have 9-12 months salary in the bank all of the time . . . regardless of your current status. If I hadn't I would not be in good shape today . . . eight months later. Having this cushion allowed me to turn down a job I knew would not be in my best interest.

I carefully pick small networking events that can provide me with contacts or skill building for the future. I have volunteered for professional associations so that my name is out there and I get more contacts. This also allows me to keep current in the industry.

It's most important to surround yourself with positive people and keep positive inner thoughts if you are faced with a job layoff. Often this can lead to something greater/better/different.

4) Network, network, network

This downturn has made me a more effective networker. Through Facebook and Linked-In, I've been able to reach out and connect to former college roommates, friends, and even distance family members. It has become more important that ever to build and solidify those connections. Along the way, my business relationships have been strengthened.

I'm spending even more time with the customers and colleagues. More outside, more networking.

I am being more careful about how I spend money on marketing. I won't attend as many conferences this year, and that's a sacrifice, because I tend to generate a fair amount of business through face-to-face contact.

Networking and keeping relationships internally and externally can help you be successful now and in the future.

I can't think of a more important strategy for thriving today than to become a first-class networker. That's what I'm trying to do.
THE UPSIDE OF DOWN TIMES - The most surprising part of the survey was learning how many people saw lasting value in the changes they made to adjust to the current situation . . .

My husband and I used to spend more weekends apart because he would go out of town for winter activities such as ice fishing. This winter he has stayed home every weekend, and we have spent much more time together. I would have wondered if I would have missed my alone time, but I haven't at all. We have become closer and are really enjoying each other's company.

Our organization as a whole is communicating the following: stay positive and focus on what you can control. This will end, we just don't know when. That helps and applies both to one's work life and one's home life.

I am finding joy in one result of these times. I think people are connecting more with one another. I'm not sure if it is because of the additional stress that people want to share their experience, strength and hope with one another. Or, is it that everyone has seen people lose their jobs and knows how important having a strong network is so build it up before you absolutely need it.

My husband and I are participating in Dave Ramsey's "Financial Peace University" and have built a family budget and transitioned to his recommended "cash envelope" system for managing expenses. It's working out great. Besides our mortgage, we will be entirely debt free as of April 1 this year.

At the risk of sounding like a cheerleader, I've reflected quite often on the saying, "What doesn't kill us makes us stronger". We all need to remember the generations before us who faced extremely difficult economic situations. Their fortitude made this country stronger. We could learn a lot from their perseverance and hope.

I am finding joy in one result of these times: I think people are connecting more with one another. I'm not sure if it is because of the additional stress that people want to share their experience, strength and hope with one another. Or, is it that everyone has seen people lose their jobs and knows how important having a strong network is so build it up before you absolutely need it.

I have a heightened sense of accomplishment and of making a difference.

Late yesterday, after a busy day of networking, I visited a friend of mine who has been in the hospital immobile and on a respirator for several months. She indicated she had spent the last three days crying feeling sorry for herself. I shared that we both need to be patient . . . that we cannot dictate our progress. I shared also the stories of 20 people I interviewed for a fundraising video last week sharing their life challenges and their gratefulness for some non-profit agencies that literally helped them rescue their lives. Life is all about helping each other put our respective challenges in perspective, and doing so with love. A friend introduced me recently to the book "A Celebration of Discipline", which is a wonderful reflective book for these times though written in the 70's.

We have cut back on eating out at restaurants and have returned to the dinner table as a family. If not for the economic downturn, this probably would not have occurred consistently. I now know more about what's happening in our children's lives and are more aligned about what we want to achieve. Discussions about our dreams . . . talks about the tough stuff. It's hard to have these type conversations at Olive Garden. We've saved money with rich conversations as a bonus.

Getting back to basics is fun and rewarding, such as cooking for the entire family and having "get-togethers" more often. This is a good time to get healthier. We are discovering more parks or walking trails we may have not explored before, including taking more bike rides and venturing out to new places. 

These economic times have made me less selfish. Even if you're going through tough times, remember to think of others. Reach out to others who have lost jobs. Be a better neighbor, friend.

Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., is an author and keynote speaker who addresses association, government, and business audiences around the world. Carol is the author of 10 business books. Her latest is THE NONVERBAL ADVANTAGE - Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work.

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About the Author

Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D. speaks on leadership, change, collaboration and body language in the workplace to association, government and business audiences around the world. Her latest book is &l...