Be prepared for the unexpected

Posted: 10/1/2011

Unexpected events can, by definition, pop up at any time.  Business leaders know this better than most. Executives in leadership roles regularly identify every area of a company or their division of a company that has the slightest threat (or hope) of veering from the expected and plan an appropriate response. Leaders meet every area of variance with redundancies, backup plans, and alternatives that are designed to eliminate, mitigate, or otherwise deal with the change.

When it comes to leading a business, most senior executives are masters at preparing for the unexpected. But what about their careers? Are executive leaders truly prepared for the unexpected? When change happens, is their a backup plan that’s ready to go?

The Latin phrase Praemonitus, praemunitus—“forewarned is forearmed”—means that you can meet a challenge if you know about it in advance. Yet, how can you be forewarned about something unexpected? To be sure, we are not talking about asteroids crashing into earth. Rather, we mean events such as your department reorganizing, your company being acquired, or your boss leaving the company. These are the scenarios that you may not want to think about but that lurk in the back of your mind. You probably already know what the top five potential disruptions to your career are. Now, it’s time to figure out how to prepare for them, however unlikely they are so that you can stop wasting energy consciously or subconsciously worrying about them.

The first step is to be realistic about what disruptive events could occur. Generally, I find that there are two types of people who have unrealistic views of potential career-changing events. The first type refuses to see even the most obvious deviation from the historical norm. They fail to consider any disruption to their current life. This type is not spending enough time thinking about and preparing for the very real possibility of a career-altering change. For example, I heard from one senior executive who was astonished that his company was being acquired—even though he knew it was on the market. I asked him about this inconsistency, and he said, “I just didn’t think it would happen.” We have all read financial documents that include the disclaimer “past performance is not indicative of future results”; the same goes for much of life. We cannot ignore the possibility of an event happening just because it differs substantially from what has come before.

The second type of people sees disasters popping up everywhere. This type creates just as much of a problem as the first. They see disasters and conspiracies where none exist. The stress and mindshare that they put into dealing with extremely low-probability scenarios can deplete them physically and mentally without producing any real benefit.

You need to start by thinking about what changes are actually possible in the short-, medium-, and long-term. While no one can see the future, we all have some idea of what can go off-course. To be realistic about possible changes, you need to be aware for your environment, from the over-all economy through your industry, your company and your department.  Get a “reality check” for your list by running it by trusted, knowledgeable confidents.  Do they think your perception of possible changes is on target?  Think about what could change within the month, the year, and the next five years. Clearly, the longer the lead time, the better prepared you can be.

Once you have identified the possible changes, start considering what you could do about them. Your road map for responding to change should be guided by one thing: your long-term goal. Where do you want to be at the height of your career? What will you doing? How much money will you be making? What will be your responsibilities? Your goal should be a specific aspirational objective.   For example, an aspirational objective could be to head a supply chain organization based in the United States for a large global snack-food company. Any deviations from the course will require some recalibration but the goal is still the same.   

Contacts and accomplishments

You now know where you want to end up, and you have considered what might possibly change along the way. What else do you need to do? Prepare yourself for the best- and the worst-case scenarios. Surprisingly enough, they ways that you prepare for the best and worst types of career changes are remarkably similar. The formula consists of two main components: know your accomplishments and use your network.

The first component, “know your accomplishments,” is more than just ticking off your degrees and the positions you’ve held. It involves a deep understanding of what you did and how you did it. A formal example of this is your résumé, (which should always be updated). Your résumé details the responsibilities you have held and how you accomplished them. Another formal example is your annual self-evaluation. However, to make either of these documents rich and meaningful, you must chronicle your accomplishments as they occur, when they are fresh in your mind, and you have the hard data in hand to substantiate your claims. Clearly, this should be an ongoing task that requires a small amount of effort consistently applied.

Knowing your accomplishments is important for both the best- and worst-case scenarios. Your best-case scenario might be having a position open up that could serve as the next rung of your career ladder. The worst case might be losing your job. In the best case, being prepared with a detailed story of your accomplishments will help you tailor your pitch for that open position. It will give you confidence that you can handle the promotion, and it will provide facts that will help convince others that you are ready for the job change. In the worst case, you will have all the information that you will need to provide to apply for and land a new job. The only feeling worse than losing your position is losing your position and having to piece together a résumé when you no longer have access to vital information.

The second component, “use your network,” also requires constant tending. Your network should consist of co-workers (current and past), mentors, people who you have mentored, schoolmates, industry associates, and people from other industries (such as lawyers, consultants, and public relations professionals). These are people who know you or know of you. You’ve worked with them; you’ve shared a table with them at a conference; you’ve commented on their blog. When positive unexpected change happens, your contacts will be your cheering section. When the worst case occurs, they will be your advocates, your eyes and ears, and your support.

But first you need to put effort into maintaining and growing your network. Exchange business cards at events (quaint, but effective). Use one or two online networking sites like Plaxo or LinkedIn to maintain contacts. Reach out to your contacts in some meaningful way at an appropriate frequency. For example, you should e-mail the people you met at this year’s conference saying how you enjoyed meeting them. Before next year’s conference, e-mail them to see if they will be attending again. People you know better require more frequent and personalized nurturing, like sending them articles that reminded you of them, inviting them to lunch or calling them when their company is in the news.

To be prepared for the unexpected you need to invest time and effort into all of these steps on a continuous basis. But that investment will be repaid in terms of the peace of mind you will gain. If you know your long-term career goal, know your accomplishments, and use your network, you will be ready for anything—except, perhaps, for asteroids crashing into Earth.

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