6. In a down economy, am I better off as a specialist or a generalist?
Most people would likely vote generalist: If you don’t know where your next gig will come from, better not to be typecast. Not so fast, argues Ezra Zuckerman, professor of strategic management at MIT’s Sloan School.
Zuckerman and his colleagues did a three-year study of the film industry to see if typecasting — a term that elicits howls of anguish from actors — could work to one’s advantage. The result: For most actors, being identified with a genre helps maintain a foot-hold in a tough industry. (In the study, less than one-third of actors who got a film credit found any further movie work over the next three years.)
So what does that mean if you’re the Sly Stallone of enterprise software? “You have to fit into a category that intermediaries like headhunters understand,” says Zuckerman. “If you start off as a generalist and try to avoid typecasting, you may not get to play in the first place.”
That said, your best bet for standing out is to demonstrate a neighboring set of skills that may be rare for someone in your category (think Jim Carrey in The Truman Show). Then, once you land the job, you can leverage those skills into a position with more range. Linda Tischler
7. There’s less work to get done, so how can I spend less time at the office?
One of the great mysteries of the downturn is how seemingly every company complains that there’s not enough business to go around, yet most of us still feel overworked and overwhelmed. Here’s a four-step guide to using the downturn as an opportunity to slow down.
Step one: Admit to yourself, “I am not indispensable.” Repeat over and over. Most people don’t want to admit this. Most people are wrong.
Step two: Take a vacation. If you’re not used to vacations, start with a four-day weekend. Plan it months in advance, and share your intentions with your boss and colleagues. That way, a last-minute crisis won’t easily derail your getaway.
Step three: Get out more. “I cut back a few years ago,” says Robert Drago, professor of labor studies at Pennsylvania State University and a longtime advocate of a federally mandated shorter workweek. “It was the most difficult thing I had ever done. First, I had to force myself not to think about work all the time. The easiest way to do that is to get involved in another organized activity — something outside of work that actually requires you to be there at a certain time. For me, it was coaching soccer. It could be getting involved in a church activity or taking a class — anything that requires a concrete commitment with real demands.”
Step four: Restructure your work. This is the toughest step of all, not just because most people are wedded to self-imposed overtime, but because many bosses demand it. “You would have to make it financially worthwhile for your employer,” Drago says. “Employers save money when people work longer hours,” because the alternative is hiring more employees and paying more in benefits.
One option is to present your boss with a plan for a job share, which, in many cases, can be costless to the employer. Another, more drastic, possibility: Quit the job and refashion yourself as a consultant. Your hours will be your own. More or less. Keith H. Hammonds
8. Is this a terrible time to leave a job you don’t love?
We were hoping for a counterintuitive answer to this one — you know, some rah-rah exhortation that you shouldn’t let a slow economy dull your ambitions. So we sought the advice of the irre-pressible Jeff Taylor, founder and chairman of Monster, the recruiting Web site.
But even the high-energy, pro-change Taylor cautions a go-slow approach. No matter how much extra work has been dumped on your desk or how grim things seem at your company, now may not be the ideal time to start shopping for that new interview suit.
“You could sit around and focus on how your job feels like it has hit a dead end,” he says. “Or you could look at this as an amazing time to double down at your company.”
Double down? “Look, your company has a lot fewer employees,” Taylor says. (Monster, for example, had to cut 25% of its staff during the past year.) “There hasn’t been a better time to push your career forward within your company and take on additional responsibility.” But Taylor says that you won’t see that opportunity if you’re focusing on how bad things are relative to the glory days of the late 1990s.
There’s no question that there are lots of unhappy people in the office these days. In polls of its Web-site visitors, Monster found that 73% of people say that their work has taken a turn for the worse in the past year. Only 14% say that their work has improved.
At the same time, “people who still have a job tend to forget that they’re the lucky ones,” Taylor says. “They don’t realize that there are people in Silicon Valley and on Route 128 who are sitting around, networking at meetings, or volunteering at companies just for the experience. Maybe they’re getting some stock options in return, but no pay.” In that light, having suffered through a salary freeze or a round of pay cuts at your company doesn’t seem so brutal.
If you do decide to stay, that doesn’t mean that your role has to stay the same. It’s time to volunteer for the task forces and teams that will be credited with reinvigorating your company.
“At most companies, there are some incredibly interesting projects happening in the midst of a downturn,” Taylor says. “Those are the projects that will change the company’s direction and position it to be successful again. Those are the projects that you want to lead or get involved with. And if you have the energy to look for a job, why not try applying that energy within your company instead?”
Of course, you should always keep an eye on the job market — in case that perfect position does materialize somewhere else. And holding on to what you’ve got doesn’t preclude you from firing off a ré sumé now and then. Advises Taylor: “For most people, now is not a wonderful time to look for a job. Your first thought ought to be, “How can I make my situation better?” Scott Kirsner
9. My skills feel obsolete in this environment. How can I update them quickly?
Skills, shmills. If you want to compete these days, update your Rolodex, insists Colleen Aylward, president and hall monitor (her preferred title) at Devon James Associates, a Seattle-based recruiting firm. The technology companies that hire her want high-impact contacts who will generate revenue, boost funding, or open doors in overseas markets — starting today. Aylward even recommends that job candidates add a list of “strategic relationships” to their ré sumé .
That’s not to say that there aren’t any skills worth acquiring. Web design, building cool apps, and online marketing have been ushered offstage, along with MC Hammer and Ally McBeal. In a decade that could be dubbed the Uh-Ohs, problem solving is king. “Companies have problems: ‘Our product is no longer competitive.’ Or, ‘We have to streamline operations because we grew too big,’ ” Aylward says. “They want someone who has solved that specific problem before.” Hiring for potential is out. Hiring for expertise is in.
More upgrades to consider: speaking one or more foreign languages, preferably German, Japanese, or Spanish. It’s no longer preferred that you do business abroad; it’s expected. Another invaluable skill is the ability to integrate systems (technical as well as human). In the wake of so many mergers, companies are trying to sort out incompatibilities and eliminate redundancies.
As for the skills that served global hit-and-run deal makers so well a few years ago, many of them matter less in a world where international partners often approach their American counterparts more cautiously because of the precarious state of the economy. “Companies used to value the hotshots who made the deals,” says Aylward. “But now they value the employees who can keep clients happy, so that their clients don’t go to the competition.” Chuck Salter
10. Do online job boards work?
Despite all the promise of Internet job hunting, a tiny proportion of jobs are filled online. Forrester Research found that even at the peak of the tech boom, only 4% of job hunters found employment through online boards. (Help-wanted ads scored a 23% success rate that same year.) “Job boards are a research tool, not a matchmaking service,” says Margaret Riley Dikel of the Riley Guide (www.rileyguide.com), one of the Internet’s longest-running listings of online employment resources. “Boards are best used to survey who’s hiring in what fields. Otherwise, they should be pretty far down on a job seeker’s to-do list.”
One smart tactic is to use the Web to collect information on the handful of companies that you want to work for. As in all things Web related, the more targeted the search, the better the yield. Start at your preferred company’s home page, or run an advanced Google search on links to the company’s site. For example, Dikel ran a quick search of pages linking to Pixar, the producer of computer-animated hit movies. In less than a minute, she discovered two pages that point the way toward connecting with Pixar insiders: One page was a list of former students from Florida State University’s computer-science department who are now working at Pixar; the other was an announcement that a Pixar executive would be speaking at an upcoming 3-D film festival. Ultimately, a personal contact at the company that you want to work for is more powerful than all of the CareerBuilders and Monsters combined. Bill Breen
11. How do I stay out of harm’s way?
In Panama, we would move large groups of POWs at night, because there was a dusk-to-dawn curfew in effect. It’s dark, and you see these muzzle flashes in the window — pockets of people trying to pick us off. You had to be prepared for potshots: the “for whom it may concern” bullet. All it takes is one.
In some situations, you can dodge bullets. The advice “Keep your head down and keep moving” really works. It’s difficult to hit somebody who’s moving from street to street. The shooter has to anticipate where you’re going. You don’t want to hit the panic button and just open fire. We were in Panamanian neighborhoods with lots of high rises, and you can’t just turn your automatic weapon on a building. If you do, you’ll have to evacuate the building and help those people. Meanwhile, your POWs are untying each other. In an instant, you’ve made the situation worse.
You want to get out of harm’s way — turn down an alley for cover — because you’re responsible for your soldiers and the POWs. If someone meets you with overwhelming firepower, that’s one thing. Otherwise, you want to suppress the enemy. While it’s happening, you never actually think, “Okay, we could die here.” Adrenaline and instincts take over, and you don’t think about the danger until later.
The most fearful situation isn’t the actual firefight. That’s what you’ve trained for. It’s the silence before the bullets start flying. It’s deafening. You’re thinking, “I know the bad guys are here, but where are they?” Once they fire, you can bring in the mail, because they just gave up their positions.
You create your own luck through training and preparation. You want to be in the best physical shape and as alert as you can be, so you can adapt to the enemy’s tactics. It reminds me of one of the commanders in Iraq who said, “We won this battle back at Camp Lejeune six months ago.”
The troops always complain about having to keep their vests and helmets on when nothing’s happening. But if you don’t do it every time, it won’t be habit. You’ll lower your guard, and that’s when you’re most vulnerable. You need to have a healthy paranoia: Never underestimate the situation you’re in.
Jim Tully is the founder and CEO of Orion International, which specializes in placing former members of the military in the private sector — more than 14,000 veterans in the past 11 years. A graduate of West Point, Tully served in the Army Rangers in the late 1980s and saw action in Africa and Central America.