Rebooting Your Career

10 March 2010 John Lees

Career transition expert John Lees shares with CEO his advice for redundant executives looking to re-establish their careers following the effects of the downturn.

Generals, we’re told, are always "fighting the last war" – using strategies from old conflicts learned at staff college. Today’s redundant executives are equally in danger of using out-of-date thinking. How do we know that? Because throughout the downturn they have made the same mistakes people made ten and 20 years ago. As the downturn gathered momentum, commentators predicted that behaviours were going to be very different.

The argument was simple: in the 1980s redundant workers had to stay at home in case the phone rang (with the incidental result that sales of home furnishings held up during the downturn). This time around, it was predicted, clothing and travel would do well because job changers would be out and about, immediately contactable on their mobile phones.

The prediction failed to take account of the seductive powers of technology. Faced with a job search, people choose to spend most of their time in front of a screen. Hacking away at a keyboard, firing off emails and applications and Tweeting away feels productive and looks like you’re working. Not only that, but with all these social media tools at your fingertips, you can be forgiven for believing that the internet can save your career.

During the last slowdown I sat in on a job workshop in the suburbs of San Francisco. It was a salutary lesson to see that even in a relatively buoyant economy there were executive-level career changers expressing the same worries and facing the same problems as their colleagues in other parts of the world - ‘nobody’s returning my calls’, ‘I am worried about talking about redundancy’, and ‘I have run out of people I can call’.

"A job that feels worth getting up in the morning for is most likely to be found through a face-to-face conversation."

Outplacement specialists often give clients a strict rule – use your PC outside working hours only. The thinking is simple; the web is a fantastic research tool, and just an hour seriously looking at a target employer can usually give you everything you need for a first-round interview. It is, however, a poor communication tool. A Tweet is forgotten in microseconds, an email in two minutes, and a telephone call after half an hour, but a good face-to-face meeting (followed up by a thank-you note) can be remembered for six months or more. The best option is a no-brainer. Not only that, but going out at least twice a week, wearing smart clothes for high-level meetings, is a great confidence boost.

Confidence should never be underrated. Start by disconnecting yourself from the experience. Too many career changers are worried they will have to talk about redundancy, but it’s such a common experience, driven by the downturn and mergers, that you need to say little more than ‘we restructured’.

Rehearse short, upbeat statements to cover difficult topics such as why you are on the market, what exploration you’ve been doing, and any inconsistencies in your resume. Prepare, too, for a short summary of what you are looking for, and what you have to offer.

Watch out, too, for the feeling that you can’t quite live up to your CV as it is common to find that CEOs lose sight of their abilities and achievements when they are let go. This shouldn’t surprise anyone, as it’s simply an extension of the ‘imposter syndrome’ that people experience in senior roles, that they’ve been ‘lucky’ or ‘faking it’.

The other danger facing CEO-level candidates thrown into the market is that they really don’t understand how people find jobs, particularly if in the past jobs just came along either through internal promotion or via headhunters. Many redundant executives are surprisingly naïve about constructing a resume, preparing for interview, and the job seeking process. A conventional job search may get you the meetings, but it will take much longer and you’ll constantly be outgunned by people who know how to use electronic routes to market to back up well-developed people skills.

Get connected

Can social media help the redundant CEO? Social media is very good at keeping you in touch with people, ideas, events and publications that will aid you in moving forward. The power of something like LinkedIn, for example, is that it enables you to target the right people much more quickly than conventional methods – and your contact book updates itself. Some senior candidates believe it’s all rather desperate, but look around and you will find some senior people on LinkedIn, with more joining every month.

Getting out there needs to begin with open-ended research before getting into a fully-fledged job-search mode. Too many redundant executives rush to reboot their career rather than take stock. Don’t use up all your best contacts in the first week – all you’re likely to talk about is how difficult life seems or how badly you feel treated. Set off on a programme of researching sectors, organisations, top decision makers and move into targeted job searches when you are pretty clear on what organisations want to hear about and what you offer them.

No good at networking? Don’t call it networking. Call it finding out, asking for help, doing ‘live’ research, getting advice. Call it what you like as long as it starts with easy steps (people you know already) and never looks or feels like cold calling.

So why are we still fighting old wars and pretending that jobs can be found through screens or job ads? We know that the hidden, unadvertised, job market has grown hugely in the last decade, and is how most top jobs are filled. If you want a job created around you, a job in a new sector or a chance to do an exciting work placement, you have to do something different.

A job that feels worth getting up in the morning for is most likely to be found through a face-to-face conversation. A conversation with someone you know already, or someone you meet in the next three months. The truth is that even a random conversation with the person standing next to you in the airline check-in line may have more effect on your prospects than weeks of online job searching.