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Managing Principals by Julia Kramer Silver Lining

Help your staff understand their old environment is gone. In its place is a new career landscape seeded with opportunity.

By  Julia Kramer

Downsizing, rightsizing, restructuring and reductions-in-force (RIFs) continue to dominate the headlines. Every day, more people lose their jobs with slim hope of finding another—particularly one with equal pay and benefits. Television cameras show us long lines—lines at job fairs and lines at the unemployment office. Even lines at Chick-Fil-A for free sandwiches. Without a doubt, times are tough for the unemployed.

But times are tough for those left standing, too. Workers who have avoided the pink slip are left to carry on with reduced resources, a heavier workload, little hope for pay increases and bonuses, and the dark cloud of uncertainty looming over their shoulders. Some struggle with survivor’s guilt. Certainly puts the “eek!” in bleak.

When the landscape is menacing, falling into an unproductive funk is understandable, but it’s self-defeating and counterproductive. So, too, is acting like your firm can’t live without you. Either option could end up costing you your valued job. Instead of falling into apathy and inertia, be resilient and keep your eyes open for the silver lining. Even in this economic miasma, there are abundant opportunities to be had.

Whether you’re a manager trying to keep your staff engaged or one of those left standing after a downsizing, look at hardships not as brick walls but as windows of opportunity. Focus on the positives and see if they don’t help you to keep moving forward.

Surviving a downsizing means your contribution is important. Many employees experience survivor’s guilt—that nagging feeling that he or she said or did something that caused someone else to be fired instead of them. If you are one of these employees, know that you were retained not because you did something bad, but because you did something good. Help others with survivor’s guilt understand they are employed because their work is highly valued, the firm’s productivity would suffer without them, they have developed important and positive business relationships, and their skill set or job knowledge is unique to the organization. In other words, and maybe for the first time in their careers, they have received the ultimate in positive feedback from their employer—at the highest levels. Help them recognize and enjoy the vote of confidence.

New tasks equal professional development. Typically, when an organization downsizes, employees take on new tasks. These may consist of lower-, same- or higher-level tasks. All provide opportunities to enhance an existing skill set. If you find yourself or your staff grumbling about the new tasks on your list, then you’re missing the point.

Embrace lower-level tasks. Show your manager and colleagues that you can do them quickly and at very high levels of quality. Make suggestions for process and procedure changes to increase departmental or organizational efficiency and effectiveness. You’ll create a legacy that will outlive your stint performing the tasks.

Jump on new same-level tasks. Sure, they may stretch your existing capabilities. You’ll probably find that you’ll need to augment current or learn new skills or find answers to new questions. Taking on same-level skills of a different position is called cross-training and is one of the most powerful career-enhancers in the workplace because, in a pinch, even after staffing levels are increased, you are not limited by your position or boxed in by a defined skill set. You’ll be a go-to person, and your chances for promotion will be multiplied.

Take a stab at higher-level responsibilities. If your manager was let go, not only do you have a great opportunity to rise to the occasion, you’ll do it with minimal risk. Most organizations that have had to eliminate management positions don’t necessarily expect the next tier down to “work up,” so a non-management employee who volunteers for or readily accepts higher-level tasks, and who is able to achieve positive results, is looked upon as a hero. Worst case, you step up to the plate and strike out. If so, rest assured it’s the stepping up that will be remembered and appreciated.

Less staff creates strong teams. Nothing creates a stronger team than a common enemy. In the case of a RIF, the new team’s common enemy is another downsizing. The threat of a repeat RIF is greatly minimized by working at full speed to achieve goals and meet deadlines, providing great customer service and account management, getting the job done, which may mean helping someone else get their work done, and keeping the workforce from deteriorating by supporting each other. Also gone post-RIF is the “I do more work than anyone” mentality as everyone shares in the increased workload and new challenges. Teams that come together during stressful times are teams that will hum like a well oiled machine during times of growth and success.

Post-RIF resilience is as critical to success as were pre-RIF results. The old work environment is gone, but in its place is a new career landscape seeded with rare and abundant opportunity. Opportunity is available to everyone, but only those who move confidently forward, develop new skills as needed, and learn to work together to achieve common goals will reap the rewards.

Kramer is The Council’s senior vice president, Office of the President.

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