Career Warning Signs: A Survival Guide

by Don Stevens

One would be hard-pressed today to find a profession that has not experienced the effects of downsizing. The association industry is no exception. While each of us hopes we can avoid becoming the next "casualty," it is better to anticipate the worst and be prepared. A wise employee will pay attention to the "warning signs" that a reduction is coming. What are the signs?

Drake Beam Morin International, Washington, D.C., has identified seven key indicators that should call attention to the likelihood of your job being eliminated and you becoming the next downsizing statistic. DBM's consultants have found that, in every case, one or more of these signs appeared before the employee was released. Paying attention to these signs will give you advance notice, allow you to be proactive in managing your career, and prepare you for the road that lies ahead.

  • You lose your influence. Remember when no decision was made without your being consulted? The more you think about it, the more it becomes apparent that you just don't wield the level of influence and the decision-making power you once had. Losing your voice in organizational matters moves management one step closer to running affairs without your input.
  • You get negative feedback. It is no great surprise that continued negative feedback regarding you job performance is a red flag that may lead to dismissal. However, keeping an open mind to criticism and paying attention to people skills can provide you with information to improve your performance and help you manage your career successfully.
  • The economy is working against you. Economic factors are difficult indicators for anyone to manage. But when financial issues become apparent and the rumor mill is working overtime, the best advice is to network, network, network—both within and outside the organization.
  • You're not keeping up-to-date. Every supervisor expects subordinates to remain productive by keeping abreast of new developments and practices in the industry. Attending seminars, workshops, and lectures as well as initiating your own plan of study will help you meet these expectations. When an association executive does not appear to be keeping up with these responsibilities, he or she is no longer viewed as a catalyst for productivity and advancement within the organization. Continuing to grow and learning new technologies can be marks in your favor when "lists" are being compiled.
  • You miss objectives. One of the side effects of association downsizing is increased supervision of personnel. Now, as never before, you must pay particular attention to detail and to achieving stated objectives.
  • You fail to change. Resistance to change seems to be a basic human trait. However, in order to manage their careers successfully, association executives must be willing to change their management styles and practices and embrace contemporary concepts such as matrix management and cross-functional work groups.
  • You may have limited options. In the world of association management, all men and women are not created equal. When downsizing becomes inevitable, senior managers are sometimes more vulnerable, because they have less room for lateral redeployment.

Picking Up the Pieces

When layoffs do occur, three main support systems will serve to help the association executive recover from the layoff: information, structure and support.

  • Information. Reliable, current information pertaining to the state of the job market and what it takes to conduct an effective job search are crucial to your success. Accurate assessments of your marketability (skills, interests, and personality traits) are also critical weapons in your job-search arsenal.
  • Structure. The captain of a ship who sets sail without a chart will most likely become lost. Similarly, an association executive who is coordinating an undertaking as important as a job search must structure a plan of attack for optimum results. Finding a job is a full-time task that requires maximum effort on the candidate's part and cannot be conducted haphazardly. A fundamental structure including up-to-date address lists of people and organizations whom you would like to contact is key to success. When the time is right, a friendly telephone call to potential references will also increase your effectiveness.
  • Support. Now is the time that you need your support systems in place. A close confidant can help get you through those hours of insecurity. However, it is unwise to start immediately making calls and setting up appointments. Take a day or two to calm down, set a strategy, and consider your options. If you are provided with outplacement services, work with your consultant from the very beginning. He or she has up-to-date knowledge of the job market and can help you think through your job-search campaign.

Getting in Gear

Part of the challenge of gearing up for a job search involves an openness to new responsibilities and experiences. Flexibility is one of the keys to success. In the long run, mounting a successful job-search campaign will help you identify interests and options that you may not have considered before. It could be a real turning point in your life.

You may also need to accept that, for the time being, you are literally running your own business. It may be that your former position provided you with support staff and professional assistance. Now you must arrange your own meetings as well as prepare, type, and mail your own correspondence. The important point to remember is that such "grunt work" is simply another step on the road to new beginnings.

Sometimes, association executives limit their options by refusing to consider a shift in careers. For instance, some believe they are only suited for association management. On the contrary, a shift into the private industry could create new horizons and challenges. It is wise to learn about other types of jobs and industries. Solicit feedback from people who know you best; they are an indispensable resource for ideas on career options.

We have already talked about the importance of accepting and managing change—two primary competencies for today's leaders. Your readiness in these areas will demonstrate vital leadership skills.

Cultural fit is one of the least talked-about and most-prized factors in today's organizations. Having the right chemistry, getting along well with others, and possessing good interpersonal and communication skills often become deciding factors in the hiring process.

Be Enthusiastic

Knowing what your passions are and showing excitement about what you do indicates that you will bring energy and enthusiasm with you to a new position. Remember to include a "zest for continuous learning" on your list of good interview answers.

Though job loss is always difficult, it is by no means impossible to recover. Persistence and the same organization skills that helped you achieve results in that past will turn this into a positive experience. A successfully completed job search campaign is a powerful learning and enriching experience—for you and for your future career accomplishments.

Don Stevens, executive vice president, Drake Beam Morin International, Washington, D.C., is a member of the ASAE International and Education sections.

This article is reprinted from the September 1996 issue of Membership Developments, published by ASAE.



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