Tough Career Advice for Tough Times

BusinessWeek

August 12, 2008

by Marshall Goldsmith

David D’Alessandro is an old friend, the previous CEO of John Hancock Financial Services, and author of Executive Warfare: 10 Rules of Engagement for Winning Your War for Success and Career Warfare: 10 Rules for Building a Successful Brand on the Business Battlefield. Following is some advice from Dave for people whose career plans get derailed. I hope you find it useful.

MG: From the early 1990s through 2006, the U.S. experienced what many experts consider the most prolific economic period in history (granted, with a few bumps along the way). Enormous wealth and great companies were created, and there has been new capital formation. Plenty of people saw their career prospects skyrocket. However, because of the faltering economy of the past two years, many executives who thought they were on solid career paths are now concerned about their professional futures. What do you say to someone in that situation?

DD: Anyone who thought this “golden era” was going to last forever should have known better. More important, executives need to remember great generals are made in times of war. Washington, Jackson, Grant, and Eisenhower would have been nobodies in peacetime, but they all were wartime generals who became President. We are in an economic war, and that means great opportunity for those that can see those opportunities and seize them. This is not a time to lament about what could have been or what should have been. It is a time to face the reality that your career may have to change direction.

That sounds easier said than done. What can an executive do to fight this tide and, as you say, change direction?

Much of what I wrote about in Executive Warfare (BusinessWeek.com, 6/24/08) addresses this issue. You cannot be a deer frozen in headlights. Be action-oriented. If your company is softening financially, you need to demonstrate that you and the people you lead are able to contribute positively and incrementally to the financials. That means suggesting significant cost-cutting or developing new revenue and profit opportunities that will show up quickly. Being proactive, aggressive, and, most important, volunteering. These types of programs show you are not only a team player but also a leader of a different quality.

It is a guarantee that many other executives will be complaining and hoping they can weather the storm. The result will be you may find yourself doing jobs that were not in your career plan, but nonetheless, meaningful and perhaps more important than your original one.

What if the industry or company you are in is in such a downturn that there is little chance of economic recovery in a reasonable time frame?

Then get out. It is difficult to admit the industry or company is in for a long, dark, and ugly siege. But if you determine a turnaround may take many years, you cannot bet your career or critical time may pass you by. You are smart, skilled, and accomplished.

Before your company’s brand looks like a withered logo on your résumé, get into the job market. Within a year, find another position in another industry or company that has real upward mobility. Do not hesitate. Discreetly use your contacts, and move quickly as you can. Deteriorating companies have a way of coming apart quickly or being taken over.

We have seen many acquisitions of troubled companies in recent years. How do you deal with being caught up in your company being acquired so quickly you cannot move out?

Remember the new bosses need help, too. As conquerors, they may think they have little left to learn, but invariably after the acquisition closes, they begin to realize what they don’t know. Always keep your eye on leaving, because you or your job may be eliminated. But while you are looking for another job, not only perform the duties you have, but volunteer to be on the inevitable transition teams.

Get to know the new people as quickly as possible, and help them sort out whatever needs sorting – budget cuts, combining physical plants, information technology integration. Whatever fits. Work hard to demonstrate you can contribute. You might get lucky and be seen as a key player they really need. But keep your options open.

That’s great advice if your company’s in a financial spiral, but what if you find yourself in a company embroiled in a major scandal or tainted by bad management?

Well, assuming you are not responsible for any part of the scandal, you are probably better off leaving as soon as you can. Given the pattern we have seen of board inquiries, media bashing, and government investigations, chances are the company’s brand will deteriorate over time. You want to trade out early. There are plenty of smart executives in other companies that look for top talent during the beginning of these scandals. They know the best people will be bailing out. If you wait too long, your personal brand and the growing scandalous company brand are more likely to be a major liability. It is not always easy to see when you are an insider, but don’t think the pattern we have seen in other troubled companies won’t be yours.

What’s your bottom-line advice?

No one’s going to look after you but yourself. Take control of your career, and don’t let events outrun that control.

I love providing our readers with different perspectives! Thank you for providing yours. I am fascinated to see that, as a former corporate CEO, you give advice that really focuses on the needs of the individual – as opposed to the needs of the corporation. How can our readers contact you?

I can be reached at ddalessandro@msn.com.

Thank you!