Be A Ninja, Embrace Chaos, Open Up

How to Manage your Career in a VUCA Economy

On Thursday, February 11th, the San Francisco chapter of IABC hosted a captivating and quite entertaining talk about surviving in the VUCA* economy (*volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous).

Panelists René Shimada Siegel, founder of High Tech Connect, and Brad Whitworth, senior communication and marketing manager at Cisco, shared their insights on networking, searching for jobs, losing jobs, social media, résumé writing, finding success, and more. The discussion was expertly moderated by Beverly Butler, vice president at Wells Fargo.

Co-VP of Programs for SF IABC Joanne Brown introducing panelists, from left to right: René Shimada Siegel, Brad Whitworth, and Beverly Butler

In general, what is your advice for surviving in a VUCA economy?

René Shimada Siegel: Be a ninja. To be able to face change, to keep up with change, you have to constantly keep on your toes. Change is scary, but it’s consistent, so you have to be ready to face whatever happens next. You can’t always count on tomorrow to be safe or stable, so you have to be prepared.

Think about all the startups out there. Even with all the great ideas out there, only one out of every two hundred startups actually survives; partially because of luck, of course, but partially because they did something extra. If you want to succeed, you need to really put in an extra effort.

Brad Whitworth: To get to where you want to go, you need to make connections. Either make connections to leads, or connect to someone who will lead you to a lead. Ask for informational interviews so you can learn what skills you need or what a certain job climate is like. Never go into a situation blindly.

The best way to secure your future in a VUCA economy is to build your network, and this is one of the things that having an IABC membership is great for — you can connect with your professional peers, learn from them, and ultimately learn about business and professional opportunities that would have otherwise slipped by you.

How do you start to build your network and gain awareness of opportunities?

RSS: I’ve worked with fifteen companies, and my company has over 700 clients. I also teach at San Jose State University, which puts me in contact with hundreds of students during the course of a year. Keeping in touch and staying involved are built into my career.

I am also a voracious reader. I don’t have all the answers, but I want to be prepared for what’s ahead. I read as many publications as I can — you have no idea where the next trend or inspiration will come from. When I travel, I read whatever magazines I can pick up at the newsstands or whatever local publications I can find.

Another thing to keep in mind: It’s important to look outside your bubble and add social diversity to your social circle, to move outside of your professional comfort zone as a way to learn more about yourself and the world.

BS: Like René, I read voraciously. I get two newspapers delivered to my house every morning that I try to digest completely, and that’s usually after I check countless online publications. I look for articles and thoughts that stand out from the rest for my inspiration.

When it comes to making connections and learning new things, there is no rulebook to follow. The rules are different in different places, depending on the context of those environments. We used to think we knew the rules of networking, of the economy, of learning, even, but they changed, and they are still changing; it turns out that no one actually wrote a rulebook for us to follow.

Now, as players in the market, we need the flexibility to learn the rules as we go along. And it seems that in order for someone to make a winning move, that person has to be bold enough to help set the rules and challenge the status quo.

What do jobseekers need aside from boldness?

RSS: Less is more, especially in the way a résumé is written. Keep it short by using bullet points, phrases, and highlights. Try to narrow down your skills to a niche or single specialty when you’re applying to a job; don’t haul all of your past experiences around with you in a multi-page document. Hiring managers make their decision within ten seconds, so get straight to the point.

What do you hate about résumés?

BW: This should be an obvious one, but I hate getting résumés with spelling errors. If you haven’t taken the time to double check your work on a job application, how will you perform on the job itself?

I’m sick of seeing résumés that harp on how excited the applicant is to learn something new. It’s great that you’re looking to learn, but I want you to already know something. You should really focus on what your current skills can be used for, not what skills you want to develop.

I also hate seeing cookie-cutter résumés that aren’t tailored to the position. I want to see that you did your homework. You should know something about the organization you’re applying for, know something about the position that you’re looking at. But be careful when you’re doing this: show me that you know something without being a know-it-all.

RSS: I prefer LinkedIn to résumés. LinkedIn is amazing because it allows you to showcase aspects of yourself that the traditional résumé does not have room for; résumés are backward-facing, only detailing things you have done, but LinkedIn allows you to detail your aspirations and personality traits.

At the top of your LinkedIn profile there is a space for a summary. I see a lot of people filling this area with keywords, but you should really use this area to tell your story. I use my summary to explain how I found a love for communications.

An excerpt from René’s LinkedIn summary:

My first lesson about communications came in the third grade spelling bee. I was a great speller, so when Mrs. Rathke gave me the word “cupboard,”​ I confidently spelled it with the silent P.

Ding! “Sit down.”​

Mrs. Rathke had mis-heard me! My meek little voice didn’t carry the silent P far enough. I was devastated, but it wasn’t her fault. It was mine. I learned the importance of clear communication the hard way.

BW: One tough thing about working with a traditional résumé is not the way it’s written but the way it’s submitted. Many job applications today are done through online forms; this is pretty much the moral equivalent of showing up at a vendor’s door after reading a blind want ad. You can try to work around this system by finding the proper connections — try to meet someone at the company, or someone who knows someone at the company, who can get your résumé in front of the right pair of eyes.

All of this is easier said than done. It’s hard to give this type of advice to someone when you don’t know where they’re coming from, what type of job experience they’ve had, who they know. Building up a network from scratch is not easy, but it’s important to start somewhere.

It’s also important to remember that a job is not your life. Keep things in perspective: don’t compare American work culture to European work culture, where it’s common to take multiple week-long vacations throughout the year. A career is just a part of your life, so always remember to be selfish and put your personal needs first. Don’t give up everything to move up a ladder that might collapse.

It seems that the key to success is building relationships. How do you do that?

BW: Volunteer and join organizations, like IABC. Branch out and try to meet people that you don’t see every day and who don’t do exactly the same thing you do. Attend events, listen to talks, and get outside of your comfort zone.

Figure out how to market yourself to find your best connections. You can do that by finding the skills that are common across all of your passion areas — are you a good writer, regardless of whether you’re writing a sales report or a thank-you email? Are you a skilled strategist? Hone in on those skills and learn what opportunities you can apply them to.

Learn how to be selfish. Employees in past economies used to be loyal to their bosses and their businesses no matter what, but now you have to learn how to be loyal to yourself. Be willing to stay but ready to go.

And never forget the power of a “thank you”. Say thank you twice as often as you think you should. Flattery — I mean real, genuine kindness and appreciation — will make people remember you.

RSS: Thank-yous are the single most powerful tool you have at your disposal! Showing someone that you appreciate their time with a well thought out gesture is sure to make a mark.

I have a great story about the power of a thank you. My son is interested in dance and attended a talk given by an influential figure in the industry. After the talk, he helped her carry some things to her car and discovered that they both used to work at Baskin Robbins and both had the same favorite flavor: peanut butter chocolate. She offered him an informational interview at her firm and he gladly accepted. A few weeks later, after he attended the interview, he wanted to show his appreciation in a big way. He bought a disposable cooler, filled it with multiple pints of Baskin Robbins Peanut Butter Chocolate ice cream, and had it delivered directly to her door. Guess who will always answer the phone when my son calls?

BW: Get creative about saying thank you. It doesn’t always have to be ice cream, but do some research about the person you’re speaking to. You’re all communicators here — use your imagination to find memorable ways to communicate your thanks and really stand out!

RSS: And try to do something that isn’t digital. Because it’s so rare to receive a physical thank-you, it’s much more meaningful.

Social media is not going away anytime soon. How do you get into social if you’re unfamiliar?

RSS: You could read the works of some social influencers like Mari Smith or Guy Kawasaki. But really, social media is everywhere. Just get into it, and make it a priority to experiment.

BW: Just try it. You won’t break the internet if you make a mistake. If you’re the type who needs to take a course or do a hands-on immersion before doing it regularly, there is an IABC social media certification. It includes a test with about one hundred questions; I definitely found myself struggling on a few of them, but I did pass. You can try something like that, which will help you determine your strengths and weaknesses and figure out where you need to learn more.

But just like the economy and job market, social media is always evolving. Just when you start getting comfortable, something will change. You need to get comfortable with chaos and uncertainty to really get good at social media — and to survive in a VUCA world.

What do you think about freelance?

RSS: There used to be a stigma attached to freelancing, but things have changed. It works for more and more people now, and you even see people moving from full-time to freelance and back. Most of the consultants working at High Tech Connect are 1099 employees; it offers a flexible lifestyle for many people looking at a second career, many people who have had children, and many people who do not want to involve themselves with office politics.

BW: The Uber economy, or the AirBnB economy, as some call it, is all about flexibility. It’s absolutely possible to build an economy around that. As I said earlier, there is no set rulebook anymore. The rules are always changing. But one thing is for sure, if you want to live a freelance lifestyle, you need to be a good marketer and a good salesperson as well as be good at your chosen skill.

How do you handle fear and failure in a VUCA environment?

RSS: Stay close with your friends and your family and talk to them openly. Ask questions about their experiences and verbalize about your own. Be utterly transparent and don’t pretend that everything is OK when it isn’t. Look for smart people and draw inspiration from them.

No matter what, do the right thing — never sacrifice your honesty and integrity in the face of a struggle. Do not let your personal struggles interfere with your leadership positions or any decisions that might affect others.

BW: Even in difficult situations, search for your self-confidence. Look closely at your situation and figure out the worst-case scenario; usually, it isn’t all that bad. It’s probably what we’d call a “first world problem”, which is something you can survive.

Learn how to handle problems from the role you play in life. I was in broadcast for many years where I had to maintain a smile and a positive attitude day in and day out. In tough situations I can keep up that positivity because it has become so ingrained.

As communicators, we often have to view life with an impartial lens. When it comes to your own life, you have to look at things with a bias. Be kind to yourself. Be selfish. Don’t dwell on the future or feel guilty about the past. Just think of what you can do for yourself now.

What should you do if you don’t get the job you apply for?

RSS: Don’t shy away from asking your interviewer for feedback, like “how can I improve?” or “what were you looking for in this position?” Don’t go into a job interview with a sense of entitlement; rather, open yourself up to criticism so you can learn and do better. Allow yourself to be vulnerable. If you are vulnerable, people are more willing to connect with you on a personal level.

BW: It used to be taboo to mention things like layoffs or unemployment, but now it’s a sign of vulnerability. It’s courageous. Being laid off or unemployed is not a personal flaw; if you don’t get a job, think of it as a missed opportunity for the employer, or a circumstance of probability.

RSS: If you don’t let people know that you are looking for a job or want feedback, no one will help you. And people want to help you! Let us know if you need us!


Originally published at sf.iabc.com on February 22, 2016.