How to Build Resilience and Boost Your Career in a Downturn

Despite economic uncertainty (or perhaps because of it), it’s essential to build resilience in our careers. Follow these best practices to prepare for potential uncertainty or job loss in the event you and your company are affected by economic disruption.

Most of us think that disruption can’t or won’t happen to us. The call to build resilience seems unnecessary for those of us who feel secure in our jobs, believe that our company is doing well, or believe that our skills will guarantee us a job.

Unfortunately, as we witness in almost every recession, including in 2020, and definitely in 2008-09, economic downturns have a cascading effect on jobs. What seems secure today can be revealed as vulnerable tomorrow when interdependent nodes in the economy start to fail. The effect is like a long line of dominoes collapsing on top of one another. Only in retrospect do we see where our confidence in our job security was myopic.

More broadly, even if you are fortunate enough to hold onto your job in a downturn, you want to build resilience as a professional to ensure longevity and success in your career in both good times and bad. And you also want to build resilience to discern and take advantage of unexpected opportunities.

Remember: Getting Fired is Not Fatal! 

People always ask me: “You say you’ve been fired 39% of the time in your career. Did it get any easier each time you lost your job?” My answer (unfortunately) is “No.” Getting fired always stings and leaves you with a sense of emptiness and doubt.  

However, everyone can learn to build the resilience necessary to engage with those feelings of emptiness and doubt and turn a setback into a success.

Use these proactive resilience-building practices to get ready for that unpleasant possibility.

Remember: you can’t control the economy or your company’s actions. But you can control your level of preparedness. 

To Build Resilience, Start with Mindfulness

As so many studies demonstrate,practicing mindfulness helps individuals think more clearly, keep their composure under pressure, reduce stress, and increase equanimity. When an individual is aware of their behaviors, thoughts, and surroundings, they gain the necessary inner strength and control to persevere through repeated setbacks and emotional pain. They are able to find better, more proactive solutions to endure and emerge victorious every time.

Here are some ways to foster this kind of self-awareness. Start by focusing in the present moment and really observe things happening around you, including at work. It is also important to question your assumptions about yourself, the company you work for, and your skills. Assess your strengths and weaknesses and where you stand in the company. Don’t rely exclusively on the opinion of “experts.” Do your own research, draw your own conclusions, and trust your instincts.

Sometimes you won’t like what this analysis reveals, especially if it uncovers mistakes you’re making, bad decisions, or vulnerabilities. That’s OK. You now have an opportunity to course-correct.

Adopt a growth mindset: don’t retreat into denial and hope things will just disappear because you don’t want to deal with uncertainty or unmet expectations. Learn from your mistakes and don’t beat yourself up for your failures. Instead, focus your energy on the things you can change, rather than dwell on what you cannot — this is how you develop resilience and reclaim your power. 

Task: Take inventory of your career’s “assets and liabilities” to help better understand where you’re vulnerable and where you’re strong. 

Secure Your Network

Resilience is also enabled by your network of strong professional relationships and social connections. A rich network can help you grow in your work and build more perspective in your life. Constructive feedback from trusted colleagues can provide key insight into overcoming your challenges. Finding common ground with your connections helps create support for your goals and ideas, and can even help you find new opportunities. So if  you’re not already actively engaged with your network, now is the time to start – before things fall apart (when you’re really going to need the support).

Begin by strengthening your existing relationships. Pursue interests and activities outside work with your colleagues and invest more effort in building strong mutually-beneficial relationships with colleagues who have influence and decision-making power. 

Step out of your comfort zone and engage with new groups or people. You can do so by increasing your participation level at industry events and becoming more active on LinkedIn. 

Here’s the cardinal rule of networking: always be giving to your network. Make introductions, give testimonials and recommendations, make referrals, offer advice, and show up when people need help. 

Task: Identify your top 50 strategic contacts that can help you cultivate resilience, and make sure to reach out to them regularly. Create a spreadsheet to track this activity. 

Who’s On Your Personal Board of Directors?

A personal board of directors (BoD) is a close group of strategically placed professionals in your field whom you can call on in case of career disruption, to review new opportunities, for advice and support, or to navigate unfamiliar or challenging problems.

You don’t need to look too far to find them. The candidates for this support system could be close friends, business colleagues, or family members. The most important characteristic between them should be that they have known you for a long time and have seen you in various scenarios and circumstances.

To narrow down the list, look for those who provide the most insightful advice or who express a genuine interest in your ongoing success and career development. Approach them and ask them if they would be willing to be part of your “board of directors.” Be clear and specific when you explain the kind of support you’re looking for. Keep in mind: each one has to pledge to be an ally (and you have to pledge to support them in return). 

Task: Interview and recruit 3-5 trusted colleagues to be on your BoD. To help, use this guide: 9 Questions to Ask Your BoD

What’s Your Superpower?

If the axe falls, what is the key differentiator to help you get another job? What is the unique contribution or ability you bring to the projects and conversations you are involved in? Identify your superpower — the one thing that makes people want you in their inner circle or company — and develop it now.  

Do you need training, a certification, or professional development? If so, invest time to increase your value through continuous education. Attend webinars or workshops, work with a mentor, or consider taking an online course to become indispensable.  

Reach out to others to provide concrete support for what you do and deliver. Ask for recommendations and testimonials attesting to the results you have delivered. Back up your value and accomplishments with endorsements and metrics that accurately reflect your unique value proposition. Most importantly, ensure your resume, LinkedIn, and networking conversations are updated. While economic instability will always be somewhere on the horizon, being able to effectively message the special nature of what you deliver will minimize the disruption you experience, and accelerate your timeline to finding your next position. 

Make Multiple Contingency Plans to Support Resilience

If you lost your job, do you know where you would apply for a new one? Do you have relationships at multiple competitors or target companies where you could apply? 

Having multiple backup plans that will help you get through unexpected and disruptive scenarios in your career is essential; it gives you a plan that you are prepared to roll out as soon as the security of your current job is threatened.

Start by identifying potential risks. Research and assess your company’s status to understand better how they are doing and create your contingency plans accordingly.

Could your entire sector be under threat? If, so, what portable skills could you take to a different industry (and can you start building bridges now)? Once you’ve done your research, develop skills that could be applied to other industries successfully or develop messaging that explains how your current skills could be applied in other instances or positions.

Task: Conduct a job search once a month to see what’s out there and what employers are looking for. Where do you fit? Does that give you any ideas about what you should be doing in your current role to stay competitive and marketable? 

Build Multiple Income Streams

Putting all your eggs in one basket is not an option. Instead, consider diversifying your income stream to further support resilience in the face of economic turbulence and loss of primary income.

Consider starting a side gig that leverages your skills in different ways. You could do this alone or with like-minded colleagues, family, or members of your personal BoD.

Task: Carve out 2-3 hours/week to research and develop your potential side gig(s). Create a business plan and realistically project the amount of income you can/could generate from this venture over the next year. Budget the time and hard costs you will need to grow and maintain the venture.

Listen More Closely

The more aware you are of what’s happening in your organization, the better you will know how to respond to them and choose proactive responses. 

Ask yourself: Are there messages you’re not taking seriously? For example, the CEO takes a pay cut, or you’re seeing one or more departments or divisions getting reorganized or consolidated. This could mean the company is struggling financially or is changing strategy. If so, is your name on the hit list? 

How do you find out? Well, it’s likely that no one will tell you to your face. But there are some potential indicators to be aware of.

Watch for changes in “normal” routines. Perhaps your supervisor’s behavior is different. They may seem more pre-occupied, stressed, or even (strangely) more upbeat than usual.  You may see colleagues getting moved around the office or their responsibilities being changed (assigned more work, or, strangely, less work). You’re invited to more or fewer meetings. The messages from management are different – perhaps you’re getting more internal emails touting upcoming successes, or minimizing rumors. HR may also be more present than before in your business day, offering trainings, career development meetings, or other events that may seem random. All of these could be red flags. These are all possible signs that something may be going on. But there are others. Be vigilant and trust your instincts. But share your concerns only with trusted colleagues.

Listen More Actively

Pay more attention to what is going on in your industry and in the world that could affect your company and your position. While the ups and downs of the financial markets can be dizzying, you owe it to yourself to stay abreast of the latest developments.

Subscribe to industry newsletters from trade organizations, universities, and non-profits that track trends and publish research. 

Pay attention to news reports and follow journalists who focus on your sector.

Attend virtual and in-person conferences and events that cover your sector and related sectors to stay informed and consider the wide range of opinions and predictions being made about the coming year.

Task: Set Google Alerts for keywords and phrases you want to stay informed about. You’ll receive a digest of articles and reports that could provide early signs of trends that will ultimately impact you and your company.

Conclusion: Your Career is a Marathon. Are You in Training?

You now have two jobs: your regular job and building your resilience. In the same way a marathon requires everyday training, building resilience and ensuring a successful career require consistent work and persistence. 

Broaden your network, build new skills or strengthen existing ones, make yourself invaluable, create “Plan Bs”, keep up with industry trends, update your resume regularly, and build an online presence. Whatever you are doing, be consistent and regular in your practice. Self-discipline is essential, especially in uncertain times (as challenging as that may be). Remember that “discipline” derives from the word “disciple,” which means “admirer,” or  “devotee.” So become devoted to yourself and increase your commitment to these practices. 

How are you going to practice resilience? Let me know in the comments.


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