How to Survive, Reinvent, and Succeed After Losing Your Job
A guide for mid-career professionals
Ten years ago, I was a single parent with two kids, working in my dream job as a marketing executive. With a fabulous staff, my department was productive, innovative, and energized.
One morning, I arrived to find that my job and that of several of my top managers had been eliminated.
During the Great Recession (2009+), many experienced, effective professionals found themselves in similar situations. Stunned and bleary-eyed, we stumbled around, not understanding what we’d done wrong (um, nothing) and not recognizing the wholly-changed employment landscape around us.
Now, as we approach the pandemic economic upheaval, many mid-career professionals feel the same shock and disillusionment. My former outplacement advisor (and now good friend) occasionally asks me to meet with people in this situation to share my experience. While I still don’t fully understand my own journey, here’s what I’ve learned.
Step 1: Survive
If you find yourself in this situation, I’m truly sorry. It is a gut punch like no other.
Take 10 minutes to cry your eyes out, rail against The Universe, and scream out every last one of your naughty words. But only 10 minutes. Then pull out a piece of paper and start working on your action plan. You’ve got work to do.
You’ll want to take action to support your professional, physical, and emotional self. Here are some steps to consider for those aspects of self:
No matter how angry you are, leave on good terms. If you’re allowed to stay a few days to complete tasks, do so with your head up. Make eye contact with everyone and wish the best to those whom you enjoyed working with. Feel no shame. Ask colleagues for recommendations, and don’t engage in company bashing. Shore up your network. If you are asked to leave immediately, do it with grace and dignity. Don’t be the nutball that people talk about for years to come.
If you’re eligible for a severance package, clear your head and read it carefully. Take a few days to review it, and don’t be afraid to ask for more. (What are they gonna do…fire you?) But be professional and polite.
Hire a lawyer if you want, but the laws in most states are slanted in favor of employers (employment at will), and lawyer fees rarely net additional gain. You’re much better off leveraging your own relationships to get what you want.
If outplacement services are offered, set up an appointment with your advisor immediately. Set your pride aside; bounce ideas off him/her and exhaust every benefit their firm offers.
Work hard on networking, job hunting, and fact-finding. Knowledge is power…always.
Sit down with your budget and eliminate unnecessary expenses immediately. Put yourself in the best possible position to withstand a long period of unemployment.
Take care of yourself(!). For many of us, our personal identity is tied up with our careers. It’s easy to lose your sense of self when the job is taken away. Focus on some aspect of personal development. Prior to my job loss, I had no fitness regimen, but the week after, I joined a low-cost fitness club and worked off a fair amount of stress on the stair-stepper.
Goof off a little. Many of us have never had any time off from work other than vacations and parenting leaves — and many of us worked through those. Sleep in. Meditate or pray more. Do things that will help you refresh and restore your spirit.
Volunteer. Many of us long to do more volunteer work in our communities but never have the time. With a new-found gift of time, it’s the best possible opportunity to help others. And, as a bonus, you have less time to dwell on your own worries. (I recommend just doing good for good’s sake; don’t look for an angle or try to leverage volunteer work to make connections or pad your resume. It’s not charitable if you’re looking for personal gain.)
Seek support from friends who are compassionate but won’t let you wallow. Surround yourself with positive people.
BUT manage your expectations. Support often comes from the most unexpected sources. I received phone calls from former colleagues (one with whom I’d once had an adversarial relationship) out of the blue, offering to help me build my network. Those moments touched me deeply. Complete strangers helped me in really meaningful ways. Conversely, close friends may fail to come through with the most basic assistance. Expect nothing and try not to hold a grudge. Until and unless someone has gone through this experience, they can’t begin to understand the urgency and desperation you feel. Accept assistance as it comes and be grateful. Period.
Tuck away the words and gestures from others that help you most, knowing that at some point, you’ll be in a position to support others.
I believe we go through things to learn something. Compassion and humanity can be part of what we take away.
Step 2: Reinvent
Look at your skillset. Look at the top hiring industries and job types. Find ways to map your experience to their needs. Work with a friend to talk this through, as speaking the skills out loud can help you see them in a different way.
If you’ve worked in the same industry or the same profession for a long time, it’s natural to define yourself as a [insert job title here].
Sometimes it’s difficult to remember that we are NOT what we do.
Each of us is a unique person with a particular set of skills. If we have applied those skills in one area, that’s experience, not definition. Those skills can be applied to new challenges, new fields, new professional goals. Spend some time thinking about what inspires you, what other skills you have that have barely been tapped in your profession, and what types of tasks motivate you. Think broadly about other roles that would benefit from your skillset.
It’s easy to be intimidated by unfamiliar terminology. But before assuming you’re not qualified for a position, pull the job description apart and think of what you’ve done that’s similar in nature. A big part of one job I applied for was assembling a large federal grant application. I knew nothing about federal grants or the complex process to submit them. So, I recast the daunting project into a more familiar paradigm. At its core, this was a publishing project. Appropriate content needed to be collected/created, validated, organized, formatted, approved, and “published.” Grants were foreign to me; publishing, I understood.
Once I cast the process into one that I was completely familiar with, the mystique melted away and I was able to discuss what my approach would be to the project.
The biggest challenge will be to convince others that your experience applies when employers too often want to fill a proverbial Left-handed Smokeshifter position with someone who has 5 to 7 years of experience shifting smoke…with their left hand — never the right. Be persistent and concrete in explaining how you would accomplish the task. (Note to hiring managers: do they really need to have shifted smoke? There’s huge value to bringing in fresh perspectives. Keep an open mind and consider alternative hiring criteria.)
As I worked through my job search, flexibility — not always my strongest suit — was paramount in these areas:
Salary — Newbies (in a new industry or job type) rarely command top compensation. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but it’s typical for professionals who take the “reinvent” path.
Influence — It’s likely you’ll have few or no connections in your new role. Prepare to build new networks with an entirely new set of people, including finding informal mentors or brainstorming partners. (The good news is, your experience gives you a leg up on quickly assessing those with whom you want to align!)
Job skills — You may be assigned work you haven’t done in years…or ever. Being willing to revisit or learn new skills will be essential as you explore this new path.
Whether or not you feel enthusiastic about “flexing” in these areas is probably less important than pushing forward with a smile on your face and an eye toward a greater goal, which is achieving success in a new area.
I won’t lie to you: reinvention isn’t fun (especially if you liked the “old you”). But, as with all areas of personal growth, it can be freeing and rewarding. You’ll discover new aspects of yourself and gain confidence with each new accomplishment. And, as you progress in your reinvention, you can begin to set your sights on achieving success, which is the subject of the next and final post in this series.
Step 3: Succeed
Success is a slippery concept. Who’s to say exactly what it is when, in reality, it can only be seen clearly in the rearview mirror? It is an ideal we work toward with a vague notion of which direction it lies in. Assessing your own success begins with defining what it means to you.
No two people share the exact same definition. Most people incorporate some combination of the same elements in different proportions when defining professional success, including:
— Personal fulfillment
— Work-life balance
It’s likely that, after a life-altering career change, you will define success differently than you did before.
You may even want to incorporate some fundamental elements that you did not think about before your transformation:
— Resiliency. If you survive job loss and manage a career reinvention, then you will have accomplished success in terms of flexibility, endurance, and personal and professional growth. Celebrate this accomplishment!
— Growth. You will undoubtedly acquire new skills, expand your knowledge base, and see the world from a new perspective. Growing in these ways makes you able to think more quickly and gives you a new breadth of wisdom to apply to challenges ahead. Just think how much smarter you are/will be than you were before. And think how much better you are prepared to adapt to changes ahead.
— Stewardship. If you leave your dream career due to limited opportunities and move to another to keep your family clothed, fed, and cared for, then you will have accomplished the greatest and most important feat of all. You are providing for the people you care for most. “Personal fulfillment” pales in comparison to the triumph of supporting your family (children, parents, or anyone who depends on you). Feel tremendous pride in being an able provider. Dignity and fulfilling responsibilities, it turns out, are no small accomplishments.
After seven terrifying months of unemployment, I found a job outside my industry and profession. I was delighted to be employed, but the job content and environment were unfamiliar. I was accustomed to working with “creatives” — wonderful people who wear a lot of black, see the world on a bit of a slant, and for whom sarcasm is a refined art form. Moving to an academic environment and working alongside brilliant researchers who saw the world in a more analytical way was a jolting change. I liked and respected my new co-workers greatly, but missed being engaged in creative work and with creative people.
Six months into my new position, I was approached by colleagues at my former employer asking me to consider consulting. In addition to giving me a chance to keep my marketing skills fresh, consulting supplemented my income. That enterprise has continued and expanded, giving me a nice balance of dual skill sets and allowing me to grow in both.
Many professionals have similar arrangements: the day job and the consulting gig. Others have gone straight to consulting as a full-time job, which is more feasible if having employer-provided healthcare and other benefits is not a factor. It’s an option to keep in mind — particularly if you want to maintain your previous skills.
Be ready…you may need to reinvent again!
Don’t hate me for mentioning it, but it needs to be said. If there’s anything we have learned in the reinvention process, it’s that there are no guarantees.
You may, indeed, need to go through this process again.
Business conditions change; leadership changes. What seems ironclad today can turn to mush tomorrow.
But, heckfire, you’ve got this! You and I…we’ve survived, reinvented, and succeeded. And we can do it again because we have the experience, the capability to grow and adapt, and the confidence in ourselves to meet new challenges.
I wish you continued success!
© Tina L. Smith, 2020
About the author: Tina L. Smith works by day as an administrator of an academic medical research program and by night as a writer and a partner in her boyfriend’s commercial photography business.
You’re warmly invited to check out these pieces: