Since COVID-19 struck, more than 50 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits. Even professionals with “secure” jobs have been forced to question their future: What if my job is threatened by a prolonged downturn? And what can I do to prepare myself now, in the midst of so much tumult?
For more than 20 years, I’ve studied this question—at first, in a very personal sense when I was laid off the day before 9/11, and later, as I studied best practices and researched my book Reinventing You.
In a time of so much uncertainty, many professionals feel a bit unmoored. We can’t control the public health situation or the broader economy. But when it comes to our careers, we don’t have to sit back and wait for things to happen to us. Here are four steps every professional can take now to create their own long-term career insurance that will help protect them—regardless of broader instability:
Develop “bridging capital”
Most professionals, unless they’re making a conscious effort, tend to build homogeneous networks. That’s fine–until it isn’t. In a downturn, what you need is diversity—of industry, age, skills, and background. Now is the time to start consciously seeking out diverse networks, which provide the benefit of exposing you to new ideas and methodologies in boom times, but play an even more critical role during contractions, when they can yield critical market intelligence or even job leads. After all, it doesn’t help you to know 1,000 people at your company, or in your industry, if everyone else has also been laid off.
An executive in the travel industry, for instance, will be much more professionally nimble—and has a better chance of landing a new job quickly—if she’s taken the time to develop contacts who work in countercyclical fields, such as online streaming or shipping logistics. A good starting place to build your network is tapping existing contacts with diverse circles. For instance, you could host a virtual networking dinner with a cohost, with each of you inviting half the guests, so your social networks can cross-pollinate. This is especially useful if your cohost doesn’t work in your company or industry. (For instance, you could tap a college friend, someone from your recreational sports league, or someone you met at the dog park.)
Step into volunteer leadership vacuums
Especially during a crisis, many professionals pull back on volunteer activities, since they’re worried about their paid responsibilities. That’s an opportunity for you, because it’s also a time when many people seek out the solace of a community. Even if your previous involvement has been minimal, you can step up and offer to run a webinar, virtual “mixer,” or skills development workshop for a company Employee Resource Group or a professional association. It’s a chance to help others and build a positive reputation in the process.
Create intellectual property
Many professionals are respected by their peers who work with them directly. But it’s rare—and valuable—to gain the respect of those who have never worked with you directly, on the strength of your ideas. These days, you may not have the opportunity to speak at many in-person conferences. But there are plenty of ways you can share your expertise online through creating written content, such as blogging about industry topics on LinkedIn, or offering to write for your company’s newsletter.
One frequently overlooked opportunity is sharing ideas or best practices regularly on your company’s intranet. Busy professionals sometimes view this as a distraction, but because this is often the pet project of senior leaders who hope to break down organizational silos, it’s a chance to get noticed. One friend of mine ended up in an extended personal dialogue with her CEO after replying to an intranet thread about ideas for increasing environmental sustainability at the company. The key is making your insights known to people inside and outside your company, so they remember your name and can say, “I like the way she thinks.”
Test a side project
You may love working for your company, and have no desire to start a side business. Do it anyway. In a rocky economy, the more optionality you have, the better, like Pat Flynn, whom I profile in my book Entrepreneurial You. Flynn was an employee at an architectural firm who started a blog to capture his study notes as he readied himself for a professional exam around green building practices. Eventually, he created an e-book based on his articles, and sold it for a modest fee on his website.
That became a lifeline for him when, in 2008, he got laid off from his firm. But since he had created a side business that actually earned him more each month than his day job, he didn’t flounder. Start small, work for free at first, and test out possibilities to see what you enjoy and whether others seem interested. At a minimum, it’ll teach you new skills you can bring back to your job. And at best, it can bring in new income and perhaps open future professional doors.
In uncertain times, we have to ask ourselves: What assets would we most want to have in the case of a prolonged downturn? And what steps can we take to obtain them today? By seizing the initiative now, you’ll have created—in small, manageable ways—”career insurance” that will see you through, regardless of how your company or industry fares moving forward.
Dorie Clark is a marketing strategy consultant who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and has been named one of the Top 50 business thinkers in the world by Thinkers50. She is the author of Entrepreneurial You, Reinventing You, and Stand Out. You can receive her free Stand Out self-assessment.