Covid career conversations: Learning from those who have been through it

Our columnist has received numerous messages from people whose careers were disrupted by the pandemic. There are clear commonalities in their experiences.

At the start of the pandemic, I wrote that careers won’t pick up where they left off and that marketers left unemployed by the Covid crisis shouldn’t assume their careers will resume in the same form.

It was one of the most read articles in Marketing Week last year and unintentionally prescient. The not-so-good news is that things turned out to be as bad as we all expected and it’s not going to be that easy for many marketers in 2021. Two ‘anni horribiles’ in a row.

Careers won’t pick up where they left off

Today, I have marketing and advertising friends who essentially have not worked for six months or more. I am not sure these friends will pick up a role that comes even close to their skills and experience – or for that matter, pays enough.

These are mid-career folks facing permanent ‘haircuts’ to their earning potential – and the same can be said for marketers starting out. They are facing lower starting salaries if they can get a job – given that whole swathes of industries that hired marketers, such as retail, travel, hospitality and entertainment are barely functioning. The industries that support them, such as the drinks business – are not coming through unscathed either.

The level of airline traffic in mid-2020 was less than in 1965. The travel sector is forecast to be 30% smaller in a few years’ time. That’s just one industry that I know well; this story is being replicated in many others.

Competition for roles is intense. The same pattern happened after the 2008 crash – existing salaries were cut and many new roles offered lower pay. It happened to me and lots of people I know.

But we are not here to talk about ‘doom and gloom’. We need to focus on how to cope, what to do, where the jobs are and, ultimately, why we should be positive about marketing careers in the future.

Off the back of the three columns I wrote in 2020 about my own experiences, I was asked to go on lots of podcasts, from the US to Australia, to talk about careers and what people should do. For months, lots of people got in touch with me to talk about how the articles struck a chord with them when they had been made redundant or faced career disasters. Having faced three recessions; been made redundant a few times; been in a lengthy career hole with few options, little cash and no clear way forward turned out to be very useful in helping others to know that they were not on their own.

What was amazing was the commonality in the discussions that I had with all of those great people who got in touch. I noticed three different types of people:

  1. Those starting out in their career – a few years after graduation
  2. Those in their early to mid-30s
  3. Those in their mid-40s onwards.

Each of these groups had their own individual dilemmas. More than two thirds were women. What was striking was the similarities from around the world. If you are still looking for work, or facing a layoff in 2021, here are some obvious, and less obvious, lessons from all of these discussions.

First things first: Do the basics

Of course, there are the standard basics that one can read about elsewhere: get your CV together, make sure it clearly shows your specific skills, tailor each CV for each application and get somebody to read it to avoid stupid spelling mistakes. Apply for jobs that you are over- and under-qualified for. Put in an allocated time every day for job hunting, but don’t spend all day on it.

Everyone I talked to referred to confidence in one way or another – and how this was the key to keeping going. Keep your confidence high by not having high expectations of 24/7 productivity with job applications. Just aim for three or four ‘wins’ each day – something as simple as sending out three applications, redoing a CV or doing three Zoom calls. Then the same thing the next day. This is your target – not driving yourself into the ground.

The formula to remember is: show skills, show achievements, share them.

Get your LinkedIn profile refined to where it really communicates who you are and what your skills are. There are lots of great resources on the internet showing you how to create a LinkedIn profile that works.

Now for the bit that some of us are uncomfortable with: you have to boast and put yourself out there. Many people I talked to realised they had to break out of their comfort zone. Their heads had been buried in the day-to-day of their normal work and they were not focused on building a powerful network.

Many people don’t like to crow about their skills and achievements. Too often, I found myself trying to work out a person’s skills when talking to them. It was like a dentist pulling teeth trying to get people to tell me what they were good at and what they had achieved. I read once that “modesty is a virtue that doesn’t pay the bills”. Stop being modest, start boasting.

Maybe I could reframe ‘boasting’ to be ‘communicate your specific skills in a way that people will understand’. Clearly point them out on your LinkedIn profile, your CV, your LinkedIn updates – and specifically mention them when you are meeting people (virtually). The formula to remember is: show skills, show achievements, share them.

Time out matters

I have written before about the ‘three-month turnaround’ – the name I give the rollercoaster of emotions that you’ll experience if you are let go from your job. Everyone I met went through a version of this. First looking backward in denial and worry; then realising, with some anger, the job wasn’t coming back; and finally releasing their attachment and planning for the future.

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Sure, go ahead and apply for lots of jobs during this three-month period, but the reality from the people I talked to – and my own experience – is that you will need this time out, even just for a period of reflection. You might not even be thinking clearly, but you don’t realise this until after month three.

Networking: No longer just handing out business cards

Allocate time to writing out who you know – your ‘network’. Put them all down on a piece of paper. Spend time thinking through how you can email or LinkedIn them directly to explain your current situation – and ask for advice or job leads. What you must focus on is not the people who you closely know, instead those you have weak connections to.

The friends of friends are more important to you, as they can provide access to new connections that you do not have. Your friends are not going to get you a job or an introduction, but that person you met at a conference might. Talk to the person you would not feel comfortable talking to normally.

The second part of putting yourself out there is that you cannot be a taker – asking for things from other people – without being a value-creator yourself. Always offer help to others from whom you are asking favours. It’s the inverse of what we think, but everyone I talked to said to get opportunities, they had to create opportunities and ideas for other people. Be generous with your time. Create value for others first.

The job application experience

If you are a recruiter reading this, you might wish to avert your eyes. For anybody I talked to who had dealt with recruiters, and the ‘recruiting machine’ in general, recounting the experience was an occasion for lots of expletives.

Indeed, the general view of the recruiting experience was bewilderment that anybody ever gets hired at all. Everyone had this experience: applying to a job with what they believed to be the perfect mix of skills, qualifications and experience. And, as they were hungry, they also had the right mix of motivation and attitude that employers say they want.

And then, nothing. The deafening silence of the recruiting machine.

I get it. HR teams are stretched during the pandemic. We are working from home. Many job ads receive an insane number of applications – more for the high-profile roles. Applicant tracking systems and other tools are put in place to help recruiters/hiring managers collect and organise a large number of applications.

For anybody I talked to who had dealt with recruiters, and the ‘recruiting machine’ in general, recounting the experience was an occasion for lots of expletives.

Rather than manually reviewing each resumé, recruiters search for CVs based on keywords, or use the system to filter or automatically rank applicants – particularly for junior to mid-level roles. In other words, your CV can be removed from consideration by an algorithm without ever being seen by a human.

I will leave you to judge the warped logic of this approach, when we hear so much about the ‘war for talent’ and the ‘skills shortage’. However, that is not going to help us get a job. Creating your CV for algorithms is now part of the ‘gig’. Distinct skills are what the algos are looking for. You need to call out your specialities, skills and results on your CV – not just because it is good practice, but because hiring systems and the LinkedIn search capability allow recruiters to search by any keyword, often with Boolean search, which connects keywords using ‘and’, ‘or’, ‘not’ and ‘near’. Think ‘brand manager and ecommerce’.

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Choose where you get advice

The unique experience of being unemployed is being isolated and unsure where to turn – doubly so in the pandemic. There are so many elements out of your control.

This brings up the delicate question of whom to ask for advice. Many of the people I talked to had listened to family, friends or former work colleagues. This might be tempting, but it’s the wrong answer – as they have no idea what you are going through. For the people I talked to, there was a sense of relief that someone ‘got them’ and understood their experience.

Why is getting advice a problem? When people give you advice, they’re giving you advice based on their particular skills, experiences and perspectives. Few of your own inner circle are likely to be marketers like you. Even fewer will have had the traumatic experience of being laid off. And, even if they have, they may be at different stage in their career, or have worked for a more high-profile brand than you.

Regardless, you will have to seek out people to get expert advice. Choose wisely. Much advice (including my own and that of the people referenced in this article) comes from individuals telling you about their journey, and every journey is different. This doesn’t mean don’t listen to the wisdom of others, but instead maybe try it on for size and ask yourself: Will this work for me in my context?

A time for reflection: The best thing that ever happened

Most people don’t look for the opportunity in adversity. However, being made redundant pulls things out of you that you did not expect. Is it possible that getting laid off could be the best thing that ever happened to you? It happens – even though it sounds impossible and counterintuitive.

The reason is simple: few of us are brave enough to make a decision ourselves to leave. I have voluntarily left jobs twice – to emigrate to a different country, so that does not count. By being forced to face our future as well as look inside ourselves, we take a different perspective.

The unanimity of this experience among those I spoke to – particularly over the age of 40 – was striking. I kept thinking of the playwright Samuel Beckett’s line: “Perhaps my best years are gone… But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back.”

Of course, no-one in my conversations said their best years are gone – in fact, quite the opposite. The enforced opportunity to rethink their career and where they were heading ended up giving them a new lease of life – a new “fire” in them, which they recognised would not have happened otherwise.

I’m a card-carrying member of this notion of being laid off as being the best thing that ever happened to me. The much-abused cliché of ‘what does not kill me makes me stronger’ turns out to be true for most people. Sure, you would prefer if it had never happened. But, oddly enough, it can be the game-changing event in your life to open up a world that you never anticipated.

The start of a new adventure

Ben Rhodes, former group marketing director of Royal Mail, has written about his experiences, having been laid off from a high-flying career. His points summarise beautifully the universal experience of those I talked to in the last year.

“The key thing for me has been having a plan. A plan to explore other things like consulting, mentoring and coaching, as well as looking for other permanent roles; even setting up my own business.

“This included a comms plan to get articles and podcasts published, so I had something to point people to. Most importantly, I deliberately pushed myself to examine what I really wanted, was good at and enjoyed, as well as what I didn’t enjoy. It’s been cathartic. Six months to reflect and get to really explore options after 25 years solidly climbing the greasy pole has been a game changer for me. I have also found and made some strong new friendships.

“This last year has had many challenges, a few dark moments and several long periods of reflection. The darkest times came when I felt, despite everything I was doing, nothing was working – CVs ignored, not making it onto or past shortlists, interviews cancelled due to new lockdowns. But I got my energy and confidence back by talking to people – friends who had been through it, but also the CEOs and founders of businesses I was mentoring pro bono. They energised me to keep on going.

“I am stronger for it, and clearer in my own mind on what’s important for me and the value I add to businesses.

“To those out there looking for work, take courage. Try different things. Put yourself out there. Be generous with your time. Serendipity will find you in time. This is the start of another new adventure. There is always opportunity.”

Amen to that, Ben.