Managing a sudden loss of career path can be a traumatic event for a manager, or anyone for that matter. But there are ways to get back on track quickly. Bina Brown reports.
Dan Jones* was four months into a new job in a new city as an IT manager when the company he had just joined decided to restructure. After leaving a company he believed he could have stayed with for life, and moving interstate, which he didn’t really want to do, he now suddenly found himself out of work for the first time in 27 years.
What was a traumatic situation for Jones could have been avoided had the company he joined looked more closely at its own needs. They hadn’t had someone in the position for 18 months prior to Jones’s arrival and it soon became obvious to everyone that there really wasn’t a position.
“It’s amazing, you spend one third of your day at work for so long – and suddenly you don’t have that. It’s surprising how quickly it starts to wear you down,” says Jones.
Jones took the company’s offer to use an outplacement service as a starting point to picking up his career.
Believing he may be months without work and possibly have to accept a lesser position he worked with Brisbane-based “career architects” Trevor-Roberts Associates to gather his thoughts, apply for jobs, improve his resume and work out his strengths and weaknesses.
“I really benefited from having a mentor in Brian Trevor-Roberts. Just to have someone to go to once a week and talk to other than colleagues and family. I found talking to family about my concerns meant that their self-esteem would also drop and so we were on a downward spiral.”
After five weeks of searching and several interviews Jones found a job of equal standing in a bigger company.
“I now look at it as an opportunity to work in another industry – one that I have never worked in before,” says Jones.
No-one is really ever immune from career setbacks. Changes within organisations occur that are beyond the control of even the most successful individual. In other cases certain behaviour can lead to a sacking or demotion.
What matters most for an individual facing a career turnaround is how the situation is handled at the time.
“I always tell people to set their goals in concrete and put their plans in sand, because circumstances always change,” says Business Physician and Director of Soluplus, David Solomon.
Change is inevitable and as a result of that people need to have contingency plans, he says. One of the first things to do to manage a career setback – regardless of whether it is outside the control of the individual or not – is to analyse the situation and put it into perspective.
“If something happens, for instance we miss out on a promotion, it is important to ask why or why not. We need feedback from people to learn,” says Solomon.
It is good to find someone who has a few battle scars who can help put things in perspective, he suggests.
Director of Trevor-Roberts Associates, Brian Trevor-Roberts, says people need to quantify the loss. Ask themselves: what does it mean; has the world stopped turning? No. Are there other jobs? Yes.
“You should acknowledge and accept the loss. If you can’t change anything about it you should move on. People should change their perception of the past and change their behaviour and attitude 100 per cent,” he says.
As recently as 15 years ago companies retrenching staff rarely offered support. These days between 50 and 60 per cent of companies provide retrenched staff with some form of career transition or support.
Trevor-Roberts says a career setback like a retrenchment is probably the third most traumatic thing that can happen in a person’s life after the death of a loved one and divorce.
“To recover from that setback there must be some kind of support. That support can come from inside the company or outside,” he says.
Trevor-Roberts says there are three important steps for anyone who has suffered a career setback:
- The individual has to take control of their own career. In the past organisations controlled people’s careers and individuals didn’t worry too much about career planning.
- An individual must be prepared to change.
- Ask the organisation to provide career support.
“Management should allow managers to have a greater input into their careers. Some organisations still dictate to people and that is where a lot of career uncertainty comes from,” he says.
They must involve managers in understanding change and they have an obligation to provide career management or support – either internally or from external sources.
Trevor-Roberts says organisations sometimes wrongly assume that if they provide career management to employees that the employees are going to pack up and leave.
“Our experience has been exactly the opposite… that process of providing career management has an extremely positive effect to the extent that employees have voted it in as part of their enterprise bargaining agreement,” he says.
Solomon also says organisations have a responsibility to manage people’s expectations before they either miss out on a promotion or get dissatisfied and leave.
“It boils down to communication. Companies can be proactive and not wait for employees to be dissatisfied. They should have regular chats and regular discussions about development and learning.”
He says organisations are getting better at providing employees with mentors or coaches who can help put things in perspective and help people think outside the square when they have suffered a career setback.
Co-founder of the Ambition Group, Nick Waterworth, says clever managers will work hard at making sure employees are satisfied at work and on a career path they are happy with. “Successful managers don’t let people start up another whole year without knowing what is going to happen. They break it down month by month into manageable parts and work to give people challenges in the short term.”
This, says Waterworth, also helps to ensure people don’t get the “career blues” – a situation where people lose motivation for their chosen work and the satisfaction they derived from it. He says you only have to look at the number of people talking about early retirement, a sea change or portfolio careers to realise that the career blues are real.
But there is a significant difference between the career blues and the trauma of redundancy. Waterworth says the fast moving nature of business means that a lot of people are also hitting the unemployment queue, sometimes quite unexpectedly. For these people it is about making their own luck.
“They are not in a job market where they can flick through the classifieds. Many expect to take contracts; others have been giving their labour away for a month in order to get a job.” Trevor-Roberts believes the job security of today is knowing and believing in yourself. Part of his approach to career management is to ask people what they want to do.
“I ask people to take two steps back – to see what sort of a person they are. Ask yourself: what is your personality; what are your values; what are the things that really drive you; and what motivates you?”
“When you understand that – then you look at your interests, how you manage change, your skills and you find out what you are passionate about.”
Three main causes of career blues:
- Not knowing what you want.
- You know what you want but don’t know how to get there. About 60 per cent of employees are dissatisfied with their jobs and it is difficult to know where to go for advice.
- Within an organisation an individual is not fully engaged in his job. Either his role is wrong or the company is not concerned about him.
Source: Trevor-Roberts Associates
After a severe career set back the following steps may be taken to improve the chances of future career success:
- Start by acknowledging the setback as a basis for moving on and developing.
- Make an honest appraisal of the role you played in the setback. Work out whether the setback was due in whole or part to poor performance.
- Do not emphasise the negatives, such as blaming others for the setback.
- Identify ways in which other people in a similar situation have been able to turnaround their careers.
- Develop a strategy for overcoming the setback. This should involve setting goals for career turnaround and development.
- If you still have a job, maintain interest in your work. It is important to take positive steps, such as looking for opportunities to develop new skills on the job.