7 Steps to Recession-Proof Your Career
“So, what you’re telling me, is that the music is about to stop, and we’re going to be left holding the biggest bag of odorous excrement ever assembled in the history of capitalism.” CEO John Tuld in the movie Margin Call
Well, let’s hope that any imminent “odorous excrement” is not as odorous as it was in 2009. Many economists are now predicting an upcoming recession. Given the out-of-control inflation, food, and energy shortages caused by the Ukraine war. In addition, continuing supply chain issues, and the Fed’s rapid increase in interest rates that may put brakes on the economy. The stock market is already down 15% from its 52-week high. But wait, you protest . . . “We’re in the Great Reorganization (following the Great Resignation!). Our firms are finally paying up given the shortage of workers. Things are terrific!” To which we reply: the worm can quickly turn, and it’s best to be ready. Recessions are not something that happens to somebody else. No one is immune. They come along more than most think. In the last 50 years: 1974, 1987, 1992, 1997, 2000, 2009, 2019. And perhaps now, 2022, or 2023. You will experience and must survive a bunch of recessions in your career. Many young professionals have never experienced a recession. But you will.
So what to do? Here are seven ideas to help ensure that if employment cuts come your name is not on the downsizing list.
7. Fully engage or go.
The burden is on you to find what you want to do and where you want to do it, including the organization and the team within it. The lack of commitment of those who simply go through the motions is sooner or later reflected in lack of performance. So commit to what you’re doing now. The list of things you can do, and the list of reasons to be excited about whatever you choose, are plentiful. When performed by someone who cares about their work, there’s value in almost every vocation. And where you are now need not be your forever place. Few of us find such a place, especially early in our careers. And there is a benefit to trying different career paths (we’ve advocated for it!). That said, it’s enough if you’re convinced you’re in the right place for now. If that’s impossible, then leave as soon as practical — thoughtfully and, ideally, without missing a paycheck.
6. Master the skills needed for your job. First, play defense. How? By taking responsibility for acquiring the expertise needed to master your job. Don’t count on your company to identify the skills and knowledge needed for your position, and then train you. Create a list of the specific skills and knowledge your job requires. These should become apparent as you perform your job. You may find yourself adding or deleting items as you learn them better. Don’t make the list more extensive than necessary. Time constraints may prevent you from getting to every item, and you can only excel at so many things. Prioritize your list, placing the most important items first. Having made your list of the skills and knowledge required to do your job well, you’re now able to identify your gaps and create a plan to close them.
5. Achieve your goals. In short, perform. In most places, this requires working both hard and smart.
Hard. Successful people are more likely to commute to and from work in the dark rather than show up at nine and rush out the door at five. Assume that hard work is expected and required to perform your job well. We often can’t control the achievement of the outcomes we seek. We always can control the effort and attitude we bring to any opportunity or problem.
Smart. The number of hours you work is meaningful only to the extent that you use them effectively. Spend your time on the tasks that create the most value and move you fastest to achieving your goals. Work on what’s difficult, creative, and impactful, including your personal learning plan. Cut the non-essentials from your to-do list. And take the time (and suffer the aggravation and initial time-suck) to master productivity tools that allow you to work smarter and in the long run save you time.
4. Find your niche. Now, let’s play offense. Seek a role that requires your best skills. Finding your niche starts with self-knowledge. Pay attention and, over time, identify your natural abilities and strongest skills. Ask yourself, “What are my best skills — the ones upon which I’ll build my career?” Determine what you’re naturally good at now and what, if nurtured, you might become great at. Almost always this potentially great skill is something you enjoy doing and that comes easier for you than for others. Often it’s an ability that others — family members, teachers, coaches, supervisors, peers — have affirmed. Perhaps it is public speaking, teaching, leading teams, or being good with numbers and grasping difficult financial concepts. Maybe it’s selling. As you progress, try to move within your organization to a team and a role that is a natural fit, one where the skills required are your best skills, and where you get to do more of what you do best. If this isn’t possible, or until it is, try to apply more of what you do best to your current job.
3. Connect with your peers. Make friends throughout your industry. Your success depends on who you are, what you can do, and who you know. Today’s industry peer could be your co-worker or boss tomorrow. Some of your contemporaries will be running companies in the future. You’ll be doing business with them, and you may want to hire or be hired by them. And you’ll want to borrow ideas from them. So make friends with peers who work for competitors and vendors, particularly with people who do what you do at leading companies.
2. Connect with your boss. Check out Look Out Above! for the myriad ways to do so. But absent a strong bond with your boss, you are not recession-proof. Want some benchmarks to gauge whether you have established such a connection? Ask yourself, would your manager:
1. Say you’re worth what you’re paid?
2. Care if you left to work for the competition?
3. Invite you to join if starting her own company?
Now, to really differentiate yourself and impress those above . . .
1. Seek to master the business. Your manager may push you to become competent in your job, but likely no one will push you to master your business and envision its future. If you like the line of work you’ve chosen, seek to understand it at a deeper level. Moreover, go beyond mastering your job to mastering your business. What factors drive the business? Master its vocabulary and understand its key metrics. Research its history. Think about where your industry is headed. What challenges and opportunities lie ahead? What does your company have to do to remain relevant? Ready yourself now for success later when you take on a greater role.
So, there you have it. The 7 Steps to Recession-Proof Your Career to help you control your work destiny and survive a recession.
Tuld had more to say about recessions: “You and I can’t control it, or stop it, or even slow it. Or even ever-so-slightly alter it. We just react . . . and there have always been and there always will be the same percentage of winners and losers. Happy foxes and sad sacks. Fat cats and starving dogs in this world. Yeah, there may be more of us today than there’s ever been. But the percentages – they stay exactly the same.” Tuld, played by the great Jeremy Irons, is merely one of the reasons to watch Margin Call if you haven’t already.
Don’t be that sad sack or starving dog. Follow the Look Out Above! way to recession-proof your career, and make sure you remain, per Tuld, a “happy fox and fat cat!”