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Managing your career in an economic downturn

Talk of a recession makes everyone a little edgy. But career expert Jean Fuller has a five-step plan to not only help you keep your job, but also learn how to use an economic downturn to your advantage.

Economic cycles are inevitable. And chances are good that you've already been through at least one downturn. If so, you either navigated rough waters with the wind in your hair and met the challenge, or you set yourself on the wrong path and found yourself on the ground with your feet up in the air.

Jean Fuller
Jean Fuller

But are you ready for another economic recession? Follow these tried-and-true tips for managing your career through a downturn.

Step one: Plan

These are business steps first, but they're critical to career survival and may hold the keys to even increasing your value and relationship capital with the executive team and board.

  • Review and plan the top five metrics of success for the fiscal year and the first half of the next fiscal year. Keep in mind bottom-line business value as well as areas for your impact. What would be most valuable for the business, and how would you measure success? Do all the key stakeholders see success the same way?
  • Proactively plan a defensive IT value strategy. Convince yourself this is the right thing to do with scenario planning. Look at different scenarios* and outcomes in the six-month to two-year time frame and see what you think this defensive IT strategy investment will harvest. Apply decision criteria and weighting to make sure you have thought of everything. You might need to partner with other stakeholders to confirm value across the organization and collaborate on changes needed to harvest the sources of value.

    * Scenario planning is similar to flow-charting a situation and applying the criteria for decision branches and changes of direction. It's a strong skill for a midmarket CIO to possess, and it can be helpful to quickly diagnose, plan and mentally test drive courses of action. For background, one book is The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World by Peter Schwartz.
  • Be ruthless about prioritizing your time with the critical few focus areas that can help the company's bottom line and create stronger-than-expected IT ROI. This also usually means prioritizing something out of your activities and day-to-day plan.
  • Write your resumé in "future-think" 12 months out. What résumé metrics of success could you harvest, and, even more importantly, what references and relationship capital could you build? Keep working on your scenarios until they harvest a more powerful network, despite dark economic times. Some of the strongest references are built in tough situations. If we were looking for the bright side of a downturn, this could be a real leadership opportunity for you.

Step two: Negotiate

There are always negotiations in times of budget cuts. Be proactive. If you're not good at saying no, negotiating or changing course, consider the following guidelines for your executive toolkit:

  • Do an organizational analysis of the people you need to convince of your position. Ensure you have planned the pros and cons from their point of view and "translated" to their listening and decision styles.

    A quick read is People Styles at Work by Robert and Dorothy Grover Bolton. It has a really handy appendix to help you translate to people who think differently than you. If you ever wondered, "What could (s)he possibly be thinking?" -- of course, never out loud -- go check out the appendix of this book and take it out for a test run.

  • Proactively plan and conduct difficult conversations on change: Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler are good resources, and available in both book and CD formats.

    Most midmarket CIOs haven't had the time to attend many negotiations classes or consistently plan and practice negotiations as an evolving skill. This is critical to a senior executive, so if you don't consider yourself an expert, achieving most all of your outcomes, then start practicing. Some good references are Shaping the Game by Michael Watkins and 3-d Negotiation: Powerful Tools to Change the Game in Your Most Important Deals by David A. Lax and James K. Sebenius.

Step three: Evolve

Define what you want to be known for. If you need to take on more work and your headcount and budget are cut, be cautious that you are prioritizing what is most valuable to the company and you. Most CIOs used to be brilliant individual contributor technologists, and it's easy to slip back into the doing-the-tasks part. Getting something done with a simple deliverable is often seductive, and can lead to even some micromanaging vs. coaching your team to prioritize, work on changing initiatives and say no to prior tasks.

Step four: Network

Do you look back on the last several years and wish that you had spent more time building a network for the tough times?

Now is the time to start, with modest -- but ruthlessly scheduled -- time set aside for networking both inside and outside the company. For example, plan one night a week and five phone calls a week to build deeper alliances. Yes, Virginia, this requires saying no to something else, but you will have slim to no regrets if you start doing this.

Step five: Be resilient

  • Put on your own oxygen mask. Ensure that you maintain or start a physical well-being plan, e.g., workouts and stress-releasing practices. Executives who are exhausted don't generate trust and fellowship easily. You need absolutely all your creativity and energy. Fourteen-hour days over the long term will drain you to the point of diminishing returns.
  • For critical conversations and meetings, practice key talking points into your voicemail and listen to yourself, then replay them a couple of times until they're polished. For major meetings, record yourself on audio and/or videotape. After you replay the tape a few times, the shock will wear off (true for most of us), but you will gain 100x in power by doing this consistently.
  • During a downturn, your personal life may also be affected. Make sure you prioritize time with family and friends and collaborate on what's important. Get inventive about how you can raise the smiles and heartwarming quotient of your times together. Find a confidential brainstorming partner to talk with during these times. There is power and creativity in the conversation, but be discerning.
  • Keep your sense of humor -- if you need a 30-second grin and like puns, try

Jean Fuller is CEO of Fuller Coaching, an executive coaching firm working with technology companies in Silicon Valley. She helps senior executives drive their career success inside their current company and plan transitions that meet their success objectives. Write to her at

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