Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Deeply Inspired Last Friday

AT WORK LAST FRIDAY, we had a visit from the outplacement representative my company retained to help those being laid off seek new jobs. Some folks were not looking forward to the visit, which entailed an all-day meeting, and possibly a certain amount of feel-good talk and superficial job-search tips. This prejudgment would have been very wrong.

The theme of the discussion was how to become resilient in the face of change. Our rep, P, was well suited to this topic: he was a 69-year-old veteran of the Navy, three layoffs, and 9/11 (his office was in 2 World Trade). Choosing an experienced rep was a wise idea, because our group comprised a wide age range (one of the four designers being let go is around 60) and included some comparative lifers at our firm. He had a gentle, encouraging manner, occasionally poked fun at his own advanced years, and, quite notably, managed to remember people's names after being introduced. Ask yourself about the last outside-company rep you had come in, like a 401(k) drone, and whether he or she would have had the knack to mention someone's name, and the point he or she had made, without checking a nametag or seating chart.

He explained how we would learn, in the course materials and in that meeting, to accept change, especially unanticipated; to recognize how others we respect react to it and learn from it; and to make it work for us and turn it into a positive force on which we can thrive. P stressed that it was vital to recognize these facets of change, because our current work world requires us to manage it constantly. Although this sounds fairly obvious on its own, it was his way of easing into the subject so he could help us begin to take control of our careers one element at a time.

He began this transition by soliciting some information from each person there, to get a sense from our introductions and self-descriptions of how we might be handling the layoff, what we were doing in looking ahead, how we regarded our own abilities. He was able to tease out from each person's specific case some general point applicable to the others there. It also served to give some of us an insight into folks there with whom we did not work. I actually learned a lot about some folks there.

One of these people — actually from my own department, though not a regular contact — voiced a point that P seized as one of our themes: that we need to view ourselves as corporations unto ourselves, with the same attitude toward publicity, negotiation with other companies, meeting one's financial bottom line, and charting one's future. In my notes, I elaborated that this would also require one to have "conference calls" with one's self. Much as publicly traded companies have quarterly discussion sessions with Wall Street analysts on the days they release financial statements, one must perform regular self-assessments to compare one's current development, status, financial needs, and accomplishments to the goals set last "quarter." It doesn't have to be as bone-dry as that sounds; and face it, nobody else is going to make these sorts of judgments for you.

P proved to be a great resource, and I filled page after page of notes following his assessments of folks' situations and thoughts as we went through the first exercise. Some that I can tease out of the context in which they were delivered:
  • Despite the stress of remaining with the firm during our closing months, losing coworkers and inheriting their tasks, and the pressure of looking for a new job, we should work to maintain our reputations as excellent employees until the end.
  • Ask if there is any chance of receiving training in new software or job functions before we go. If the firm is generous enough to offer severance, our managers may be able to kick loose some funds to help us close gaps in our training that might help on the job hunt.
  • The vast majority of those who receive job offers ask for more generous terms — employers expect it, though they will never solicit such bargaining — and virtually all of them got something extra as a result.
  • Should I receive a job offer close to the end of our severance, and the new employer is not willing to wait the remaining time to hire me, I should ask the employer for compensation or perks to make up for the loss.
  • I should check my performance reviews for common themes, repeated instances of praise or specific skills/tasks that won credit, and use these dynamic terms and achievements on my resume.
  • Similarly, I should dig into my entire job description, and tease out strengths and skills I have developed past the initial, on-paper summary of my job function.
  • Being selected to manage this transition — versus simply being fired — indicates to other employers that we were worth retaining because of our smarts and ability to manage this situation. "They don't keep the dummies," P said.
  • Almost everything is negotiable when the job is offered: salary, vacation, early performance review (vs. waiting a year to be raised), medical coverage, training, start time, etc.
  • It is increasingly common for the first interview to be on the phone only, and for the second and subsequent interviews to be in person. When interviewing on the phone, stand. Your voice will project more vs. if you are sitting — when we sit, we speak more quietly, perhaps more intimately, which lacks impact over the phone at the moment when we need to be assertive. For the same reason, don't bend down over your notes, down on the desk or counter, while you read from them.
This list truly beggars the wealth of information and ideas P posed during the interplay with the group, but it illustrates the range of discussion we had, after P skillfully broke the ice.

After we broke for lunch, P guided us through some specific definitions of resilience and how this is necessary to cope with today's changing workplace and our shifting needs. To make this more concrete, he passed out a self-assessment for us to focus on our specific strengths and areas for improvement. (To the delight of this veteran of psychology-press copyediting, it used a Likert-type scale.) The categories we scored in related directly to action points later in the booklet, and I spent the better part of the weekend underlining and making notes on various resonant bullets in these lists. We also received two other pieces of literature I haven't dug into yet, because the first one was so engaging.

It's tough to recount all of the give-and-take P solicited, because he so directly involved our personal situations and the idiosyncrasies of our workplace in the discussion. I feel like I have a lot more options now, but more important, I want to take a bit of time to figure out my true direction. I was given some powerful tools to get this process going, and I have a free month of this firm's services to fine-tune my resume, interviewing skills, and follow-up. I thought my first step would be to write my resume, but now I feel I should sit down and write a plan for myself based on what this survey we took showed might be my strengths, career desires, and goals for myself . . . and then craft a more fine-tuned resume with a powerful statement of purpose at the top.

Rather than being some sort of Office–like exercise in doublespeak and feel-good-ese, I found this workshop and P a vital touchstone for some serious thinking about my future. If P can find a career for himself like this one, at which he is still working well past his retirement age, then I ought to take some serious steps toward finding what that my be in my case. It might not be the next job I take, and it very well may be outside publishing altogether. I think this meeting served to show a lot of the folks there that they have been walking along without a plan or a destination. I am lucky enough to have a space of time and a safety net of support to find mine. I need to do so.


India said...

This sounds really useful. I especially like the advice to stand while having a phone interview. Very practical. My only experience with an outplacement counselor was disappointing, at best. You, on the other hand, clearly have a good one.

It sounds like you are approaching this career transition with immense poise and good sense. This is only my first time reading your blog, but already I'm confident that you'll find a better job, and fast.

Schizohedron said...

Thanks most kindly for the good wishes! I will definitely need them in the weeks (if not months — eek!) ahead. I know a lot of people who are laid off are simply given a box of their stuff and escorted out, so the company is going a genuine extra mile thus far in helping us. I'm hoping the formal outplacement process is as worthwhile when I engage the free month of service. Stay tuned. . . .