How to recover from a knock-out punch to your career.
I don’t know anyone whose career has been a smooth ride; at least not anyone interesting! At some point, if you’re striving to succeed, you may get a knock-out punch, a humiliating career setback. How do you recover from that? How do you accelerate your career from zero? Here are some ideas based on 30 years of working with professionals facing this issue.
A career is not a smooth ride
When I was growing up, as the eldest of seven kids, I thought I’d go and pioneer, find some things out and then pass on the wisdom to my younger siblings so they’d do better. My daughter is now older than I was when I had that naïve notion. What has actually happened over the last decades, is that we have all experienced completely different successes and career setbacks. There has been no smooth ride for any of us.
Setbacks are natural. Some feel like knock-out punches. After a death of someone close recently, I found myself flattened, almost stagnant. At those times, it is hard to imagine another way of living or to feel that anything you do will make any difference. My siblings too, have gone through periods of feeling stuck. But we each recovered in our own way.
In my professional life, since I deal with transitions and new roles, I’ve also seen my ‘professional siblings’, so to speak, (whether clients or colleagues) suffer all kinds of career setbacks. The resources sector has crunched gears from building operations to running them; this has had a cascade effect leading to recurrent crisis in the equipment and services sector. Renewable energy is becoming cheaper so fast it is disrupting the plans of the leading energy players. Finance and banking, transport, health care, education, retail and media are all changing more rapidly than some of us can adapt. There’s a growing body of literature on the demise of professional service firms.
These shifts end careers. They hurl talented, experienced, savvy professionals into the turbulence of unexpected transition.
Whether you receive a knock out punch, or just come to a gradual realisation your career is on the mat, there are three things you can do. Things you must do.
Three essential tasks to refresh and accelerate your career.
There’s no silver bullet to changing career direction and crafting a career strategy. And it needs real work.
1 Sharpen your mindset.
Your mindset is crucial to finding your true career path and starting to move.
There are three aspects to your mindset.
One is your personal state of mind from hour to hour. I call this Ferocity – it’s a long but powerful acronym – and it enables you to do two vital tasks. It enables you to scan yourself quickly and decide what to do to be more effective in an interview, for example. It also gives you a framework for assessing whether a new role will be sustainable.
The second aspect of mindset is how you think about your bigger role. How you think directly shapes the priority issues you focus on, the action you take and your confidence.
The third is your mindset as a team member – how you connect, create and communicate with your colleagues. When you’ve consciously chosen your best combination, you control your impact and your reputation.
Each change challenges us. Challenges us not only to think differently, but to be different. That means acquiring a new mindset.
2 Develop a strategic career management process.
Careers today are fragmented. You will not only change jobs but change career. That means taking control, understanding the career management process and crafting a strategy, choosing effective ‘Career Tasks’ with as much care as you choose job tasks. Career tasks are even more crucial when you’re busy with your job.
- You need to understand the continuous process of exploring, assessing and deciding on your career building activities.
- You need to refine your sense of purpose as it helps you to prioritise your action.
- You need a 21st century CV. 
- You need to build your new professional community.
- You need to express your value and the rewards you expect in return.
Without a strategy that drives your actions, your career will be a sequence of accidents. Happy accidents are great; unhappy accidents can take years to recover from, especially after 20 or 30 years of experience.
3 Aim for the precisely right target.
I’m always surprised by how vague (or superficially precise) many professionals are about the role they can do best. Here are some questions that may help you define your future role (not the job, which is a different thing).
- Are you best working solo or do you leverage teams well?
- Are you a brilliant influencer?
- Do you know how to generate intellectual property that is the secret sauce of an organisation’s success?
- What is your reputation, how do you manage it, and what effect does it have on an organisation’s success?
- Have you changed an organisation’s entire culture? Is this what you do instinctively?
- Do you know how to bring people together to craft a great strategy?
- Do you know how to design an organisation or do you prefer to make existing processes work well?
- Do you know how to work productively with a Board of directors?
- In your day-to-day work do you craft, communicate and achieve a vision?
These are the tough, high-impact aspects of any role that are hard to express but vital to success. Develop role clarity and you have a compelling case to tackle the role that’s right for you.
Take action. Come leaping off the mat.
I’ve taken many clients through this journey. It’s challenging. I know, because I’m taking the journey myself! I am challenging myself each day to do the tasks I set my clients through the program to uncover how I can develop beyond my current role as a trusted advisor to CEOs and others. I’m exploring (though I love my career and I’m over 60 years old) my strategic career tasks. I am exploring whether I need to take up a new, higher impact role even though I don’t yet know what it could look like.
I’ve been working with Mary and over the last several months we have hit these issues and had deep discussions about them. As a result she has identified some important insights for herself:
- She places great emphasis on Respect. It is now central to
- All conversations with recruiters about organisational culture
- How she investigates any executive team she might join
- How she behaves and the stories she tells about her career.
- Other clients have identified Innovating or Youthful Passion as key.
- Her career strategy has broadened to explore how she can further develop her capacity as a strong board member, listed company executive and creator of a significant not-for-profit.
- She has a CV that complements her online search results, her various profiles and the articles that have been written about her
- She has reached out and extended her professional community
- She is able to say in a few words how she is fulfilling her purpose
- Other clients have discovered that it’s time to create their own niche consultancy.
- Mary also has a clear, evidence-based pitch for the kind of executive role that is most suited to her three central strengths. This means that when the right situation presents itself, she can say yes or no to a CEO role – and be clear why she makes the choice.
- She knows the kind of stakeholder she wants to serve
- She knows her core executive contribution on a strategic level
- She knows how she would shape any team supporting her in a new role
- Other clients have either seen that it’s time to make a run for a CEO role – or to avoid that and focus on being a world-class expert.
So these three core tasks do more than give you a warm glow. They require deep reflection, powerful exploratory conversations and tough decisions. The result is as powerful as the genuine commitment and energy you put into them.
Have you achieved a career rebound? What was your strategy?
I’d love to hear from you about your setbacks and the actions and insights that helped you move into your next career phase. I’ve heard tens of thousands of career stories over the last 30 years and each one is unique. Yet these three facets of career management keep presenting themselves as the keys to taking control, setting the agenda and crafting the next role.
Comment below – or send me an email. I love exploring this issue; it’s endlessly interesting and increasingly important, as careers become less predictable and more fragmented. Mindset, Process and Target are the core elements of my program Accelerate Your Career. This is how I deliver the most important thing I know – how to get a role in which you will excel.