Quick Change Artist
Look around and ask: what man is doing the same job as 10 years ago? Under-seige financial advisers have rolled up their spreadsheets, post-Crisis, to become builders. Bookshop owners now run print-on-demand and e-book businesses out of virtual warehouses. Most recently, and in a short time, the newspaper industry has changed from one of massive, long-term institutional staff delivering stories on daily deadlines into one of hyper-flexible cadres of multimedia operators producing content for instant deadlines. All without any promise that their job, their company or even their industry will exist tomorrow.
If you’re not among the above groups, you’ve likely got your own story to tell about how much your profession has been buffeted by the winds of change generated by disruptive technological storm fronts. Yes, nothing is what it used to be, and if the future offers more of the same, it is more of the same uncertainty.
So how do you weather such uncertainty? Better still, how do you become one of those men who prosper in times of turmoil?
You might start by heeding the words of organisational psychologist Simon Brown-Greaves, who divides these thrivers into two camps. “There are people who’ve been through a lot of change and learn to adapt, and become less anxious as a result,” says Brown-Greaves, a director of organisational consultants the FBG Group. “Commitment and hard work have taught them that change presents opportunities.”
And then there is a small proportion of people – “optimistic and confident in their ability to handle challenges,” he says – who actually enjoy change.
“They’re internally controlled: they don’t blame others when things go wrong, but take responsibility themselves. They love the activity and excitement that change brings. And they’ve learnt that moments of great change are when you get ahead; senior managers look favourably on people who revel in change and promote them.”
You’ve probably seen this type as they sail past. I have: one friend has risen from a lackey on a news website to a top executive at a billion-dollar corporation within a blink. None of her friends knows quite what she does or has done; what we do know is that she is insatiable for upheaval and reinvention. The times, as they say, suit her.
Nobody’s saying making them suit you won’t involve some discomfort. You’ve worked hard to get where you are and the thought of having to shred your now-redundant qualifications and jettison some (maybe all) of your prized skills can be equal parts galling and terrifying.
Men, in particular, have often had the expectation of permanence and stability – founded on a “good, solid job” – handed down from their fathers. If we become fathers ourselves, the long-term plan (more on that later) can often be to bunker down and avoid risk in order to provide for our family. And, of course, there are those among us who just like one day to be much like the one before – for many men, this is happiness.
This is also gone.
IT’S HELPFUL TO look at this upheaval in two stages: 1) how to deal with change when it’s coming; and 2) when it’s here. These two phases often overlap and the techniques post-change can be just as useful pre-change.
“Avoid the water cooler”
This is how Brown-Greaves puts it. “Don’t get drawn into the rumour mill, which is unproductive and infectious and mostly ill-informed.” Water-cooler talk about a company’s future tends to reinforce fear, stress and head-in-the-sand conservatism.
More broadly, says Ankit Mishra, a change management consultant with Accenture, is to avoid being a “change-fighter”.
“Every job is changing,” says Mishra. “If you stand there and say, ‘I’m going to do this the way I’ve always done it, my situation hasn’t changed’, you might think you’re keeping change at arm’s length, but actually this will bring on more anxiety.”
So how should you deal with the gossip swirling around? For life coach Noel Posus the answer lies in going to your employer to seek information, and not presenting yourself as a potential victim. “Often people don’t feel they have permission to ask what’s going to happen,” says Posus. “Don’t go in to seek inside information and understand that there are limits to what they can tell you. But if you take that step forwards, you can get ahead of the curve.”
Sure, it may not come naturally, but “you can learn from Gen Y, who are fine with the idea that there is no such thing as a permanent job.” So says Adrian Kelly, who works at an outplacement organisation. Baby boomers, says Kelly, assumed that if they didn’t stuff up, they could stay in the same job as long as they wanted. “This is no longer the case, and you have to get used to the idea that you might have two or three or more different careers in your working life.”
Change starts within
Altering psychological habits, says Kelly, is “like watering the garden – you don’t just give it one load of water a year, you do a little bit every day.” He advises spending seven minutes a day planning your career and being nimble in case of change. It’s a matter of “changing your habits of thinking, one at a time.”
Brown-Greaves advises changing your mindset so that change is not just something that happens to you. This kind of brutal self-awareness is an essential first step, believes life coach Sandy Ewing. “You always need to be asking yourself if you’re getting complacent about the future,” she says. “We are only limited by our current thinking, and if your thinking is complacent, then you are going to get a shock.”
Her advice is to shake yourself out of complacency with small day-by-day steps. “For example, today you will walk through the door of the office with a better attitude towards the future. It starts with that first simple step.”
“The greater the pace of change, the more opportunities there are to develop your skills,” says Marcus Strom, who advises journalists trying to keep pace with industry changes. “If you have a positive attitude towards change, you’ll get out of the habit of underestimating the value of the skills you already have.”
“For organisations, talent management is a big theme,” says change management consultant Narelle Hess. “You can help by asking for projects that might help with your next career transition, look for temporary projects and look for learning opportunities your current employer is offering.”
The payoff is not just in being better prepared in case you have to change your job, but in being better qualified to stay within the organisation. “When companies start laying off people, they want to keep those who can do more than one thing,” says Mishra.
Take the time to break down your skills in a personal audit. “By listing your skills, you might see how they can be used in other jobs, even other industries,” says Strom.
Even if you’re not thinking of changing, Kelly believes a skills audit is a good idea.
“It boosts self-esteem to write down the value you bring to your work. And it’s a good way of keeping your CV updated in case you need it.”
On top of a skills audit, Posus advises listing “facts, feelings and perceptions” as a way of addressing fear of change. “When you write down many of the things you’ve been worrying about and ask if they are facts, feelings or perceptions, very often you’ll find that they’re just perceptions. The facts themselves might not be so scary.”
Build a fallback position
The prospect of change is most frightening when we feel we don’t have a safety net. “A fallback is always smart,” says careers adviser Karina Butera. “Anyone in the prime of his career should be thinking about contingencies for when they hit the market.”
That takes the form of setting aside savings, upskilling and filling skills gaps, and increasing your networks so that when the change comes, you are ready to go on the front foot, rather than being blown along by external forces.
A contingency plan should have two parts, says Brown-Greaves. “A) write down a strategy while you’re in your position, almost like a business plan, for how you will make the best of it. But also, B) have a private contingency plan, which is about looking for other opportunities and working your networks.”
You should also work with a financial planner on a fallback position, so, as Posus says, you can make your finances uncertainty-proof.
Your job is not your self
De-coupling self-esteem from a job can be hard for a man who has been born into a tradition of “you are what you do”. One obvious circuit-breaker is to expand beyond 9pm finishes at the office and weekends of email catch-ups. “Get involved with the community through volunteering, do things at your kids’ school and follow your interests,” says Butera.
For Mishra, beekeeping is his escape. It performs a double function, both taking his mind off work and giving him a kind of mental contingency – “If I lose my job, maybe I can be a beekeeper.”
In any case, the less you define yourself by your job, the less fearful you will be of possibly losing it.
FOR MANY, JOB LOSS will come whatever you do. Like the death of an elderly relative, even if it’s expected, it still brings grief. Many of us know men from our parents’ or grandparents’ generation who defined themselves by their work, who saw their jobs as permanent, who did no contingency planning and who never ever recovered from being retrenched. If there is one lesson their example left for their sons, it was how not to deal with change. Perhaps they were never told, or never believed, the kind of mantra Kelly tells his clients: “You are not redundant. Erase that from your vocabulary. Your position was made redundant. Not you.”
Today’s experts synthetise this knowledge into practical strategies:
1. Beware Of The Rebound
Like love, a job on the rebound can satisfy all your needs – at first. But making hasty decisions leaves plenty of leisure to repent. “A quarter of people don’t last 12 months in their next position,” says Kelly, and the rate is highest for those who jump into the first offer. The right cooling-off period depends on the individual. “There are some men who really need immediate action,” says Hess. “That’s how they deal with change.
But other men need to go through all the stages of grief – anger, denial, bargaining and the rest of it until acceptance. If that’s you, you need time and space before taking your next action.”
The best strategy for “rising above the here and now”, says Butera, is literally to give yourself space. “Before you take your next action, jump in the car and go somewhere peaceful. Turn off the phone, leave the laptop at home, go for a hike or a surf, get away from all the voices and just listen to your own wisdom. You might need to cry for two days if that’s necessary. Get it all out before you make your next move.”
The first move Posus advises you make after leaving a job is to visit your doctor. “You have to do the right thing for your health,” he says. ‘It’s so easy, when you’re under stress, to forget this. Monitor your alcohol and caffeine intake, your water intake, see your doctor and get a full check-up.” When all else seems lost, you’ve always got your health – or do you? It sounds obvious, but is easily overlooked.
3. Use Outside Help
Any employee assistance programme offered by your employer should be your first port of call. “It can be a difficult step if you’re your family’s primary income provider,” says Strom, “but it’s worthwhile and free. You can get emotional assistance, peer assistance, training assistance. Sometimes there will be assistance to redeploy within the company.”
Along with financial and medical advice, seeking outside help can include life coaches, mentors, psychologists and careers advisers. “This is the ideal time to use them,” says Posus, “because they don’t have a vested interest. They are independent with no other conflicting responsibilities.” Some men may struggle to ask for such help, but, says Posus, “it’s better to seek help at this stage rather than waiting until you’ve completely fallen apart and need the couch.”
4. Invest The Payout
It’s a common mistake, says Kelly, for employees who have left a company with a retrenchment payout “to sock that money away into their savings”. Instead, a portion should be set aside for the period between jobs.
Going from company employment with its support structure into a consultancy can be a struggle. “Who does the banking and finance? Who does the IT support? Who does your marketing?” says Butera. “If you’re used to these all being done by support staff, what do you do?”
She says a common mistake is to try to do it all yourself. Instead, set aside a portion to invest in support services. “You are starting a new business, after all.”
5. Make The Journey
A Collective One
Isolation can be the biggest threat to mental health during and after career change. After the activity of newsrooms, many journalists fear the isolation of freelance work, says Strom. Unions and professional associations provide regular social functions, but he also recommends informal networks. “It’s good if you have three or four people you get together with for lunch every fortnight, just to overcome the isolation.” All the experts agree that keeping up this social time – diarise it, don’t just talk about it – is essential, and can be used strategically.
“Network to give, not to get,” is one of Posus’ mantras. When he left his last full-time job, the first thing he did was have his most influential circle to dinner. “I asked for their advice and we exchanged ideas. I offered to coach each of them for three months for free, as a way of giving back to them and also to get their feedback on how I could design my service.”
You should also join social media networks such as LinkedIn and Facebook. “It’s good for your mental state, and you never know where it will lead,” says Kelly – jobs are increasingly coming not from traditional advertisements, but through the grapevine of social media. “The people you know may not have the job you’re looking for, but they might know someone who knows someone who does.”
6. Include Your Loved Ones
“Your family are in the passenger seat,” says Kelly, “so they’re not in control. But if you don’t include them in your strategy, you’re only increasing the stress and isolation.” Ewing believes it’s paramount you communicate with your closest family and friends. “They will be the most supportive people when it really counts,” she says.
7. It’s Not That Bad
The best antidote to fear is facing it eye-to-eye. As children, we learn that ogres are never as scary as when we’re dreading them, and it’s the same with professional change. “Very often you find that what was unthinkable is actually quite easy,” says Ewing. “Taking a sideways or backwards step in an organisation is common now. Taking less pay – there’s nothing wrong with that. If you examine yourself, you may not need all the material things you thought you needed.”
It can take a re-definition of basic male values, such as courage. “There’s nothing cowardly in taking a backwards step, if you’re doing that proactively,” adds Ewing. “It can be the most courageous thing of all.” Brown-Greaves also takes the wide view. “When people think of change, they’re often thinking of worst-case scenarios. But when that change actually occurs, their most common response is that the worst-case scenario wasn’t that bad after all.”
MAYBE THAT’s ultimately the safety net that those go-ahead, change-relishing types already have: the knowledge that they have nothing to fear but fear itself.
By Malcolm Knox