Seven tried and tested strategies for getting back into work

The consequences of the pandemic are now being felt in redundancies, and if you’re in this position, a structured approach is your best bet for finding the next opportunity.

‘We are all in this together.’

Er, no, we’re not. The real impact of the pandemic is now starting to hit us all in marketing and advertising.

The recession is happening and it’s here now. Unsurprisingly, a collapse in demand means that companies are laying off people in droves. And the downstream effect on folks in marketing and advertising has started. Unlike other recessions, this one is affecting almost all industries. So, what should you do if you are being affected?

First, let me take you back to April. Yes, the one that was just a few months ago, but feels like about 20 years.

You might need to read my last column to get the gory and unpleasant (at least for me) details, but here is a quick synopsis: despite having what appears to be a good marketing career, part and parcel of this has been getting laid off four or five times. The reaction to the article took me by surprise.

Careers won’t pick up where they left off

Lots of people from around the world – Bulgaria, Colombia, Germany, the US, India; you name it – got in touch. They said some pretty nice things. But there were a lot of things I left out. So, here are some battle-tested ideas you can use if your career has been affected, to face your future positively and keep your ambition intact.

I did get accused of using uncompromising language in the last column and was told that maybe I should tone it down (are these people reading Professor Ritson of this parish, I wonder?). Of course, I am going to ignore this advice – so, fasten your seatbelts, snowflakes, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Ideas for coping

When I am asked about coping, I recommend looking at it as the ‘three-month turnaround’ – this is the label I have given to the emotions and perspectives that you’ll experience if you are let go from your job. Let me explain:

  • Month one: You still look backwards – thinking about the job and the world you have left behind. There is some denial, anger and bargaining.
  • Month two: The dawning realisation that the old world is not coming back, and you can start thinking – good and bad – about the future. There is still some denial or anger.
  • Month three: The old job begins to fade in your mind, and you start to look forward to the future and believe in concrete plans. Denial is over and you realise anger is futile.

This model reflects many people’s experiences. Only late in month three can they see the future more clearly – and start making concrete plans. I even suggest that people don’t go applying for lots of jobs or dusting off their CV during this three-month period. Perhaps in month one you will, but in reality you are not seeing clearly – something you don’t realise until after month three.

That’s when it dawns on you that you might have been on autopilot for a while – and I don’t mean in your job. I mean you have been following a ‘script’ that’s been in your head. And now that script is no longer useful.

In cognitive psychology, a script is defined as “a predetermined, stereotyped sequence of actions that define a well-known situation”. We all draw on them to create ideas about how things will unfold – such as when you are laid off.

With the pandemic, some of our previous ideas about your career might now not pan out. The sooner you process this the better. Back to the point about denial here: I have been guilty of using the same scripts and holding on tight to an imaginary future. Nothing good comes of this.

After month three, you should have a clearer head and more realistic take on the future. Working on the CV, getting out there – all of these normal job-hunting practices will be a lot more real and grounded at this stage.

What to do: a battle-tested plan

Let’s start with a few standard basics. Get your CV together. Make sure it screams all your achievements, your unique abilities and your skills. Avoid the platitudes and generalities – I’m a hardworker! I’m a team player! I’m a leader! Take time over each application. Apply for jobs that you are over-qualified and under-qualified for. All the usual stuff you read about job applications is pretty much true.

But what about the approaches to creating a plan, getting a new job and coming out the other side unscathed? These are things I have thought about, researched and asked others about a lot – including many of those I talked to as a result of my April column. I remember how I behaved in this situation before, what worked – and what did not. So here goes – seven ideas for you to implement if you are facing a career hiatus or change:

1. Get tough on yourself

I was told that language like ‘get tough’ was perhaps too aggressive in my last article. Yet, I will double down and say it again. This is not a call-to-arms for ‘hustling’ or some other such nonsense. No, it’s about being a professional.

What many people need at times is tough love. Yes, I know tough love is currently frowned upon as being insensitive. Yes, I know the current crisis is different and it has affected all our moods: some days we are up, and some days we are down. I’m no different. The truth is we sometimes need motivation, be it a kick up the butt or an arm around the shoulder to truly help ourselves.

Create a daily or weekly timetable and schedule that works for you. Create deadlines and commitments – artificial or otherwise. Lots of people write about creating great habits on the internet – check them out. If you can, try to stick with your schedule as many days of the week as you can. I use timers, alarms, noise-cancelling headphones – anything to get myself to do what I set out to do.

The truth is we sometimes need motivation, be it a kick up the butt or an arm around the shoulder.

What I’ve learned over long periods of trial and error is my head is clearest is the morning – so that’s when I try to read, research and learn. In the afternoon, that’s when I would search for roles, send emails, chase people down. Sure, I might fall of the wagon, lose focus, surf the web, get angry on Twitter and generally mess around and do nothing. Great, get back into it the next day. As Chumbawumba put it: “I get knocked down, but I get up again.”

2. Aim for a ‘career moat’

Venture capitalists in Silicon Valley judge many of their investment decisions around the concept of a ‘moat’. Think of an old castle with a moat to protect those inside. A moat is a fancy metaphor for what marketers might call ‘competitive advantage’, ‘positioning’ or (for How Brands Grow fans) ‘distinctiveness’.

A ‘career moat’ is the idea of creating and maintaining career competitive advantages over your competition (in this case, in the job market), to improve your employability and set yourself up for the long term.

Another reason to think through your career moat is this: many people I meet have ‘vanilla’ CVs. Nothing leaps out and grabs me. They focus on generalities that others can easily claim such as branding, leadership or people management.

The fact is these concepts are ambiguous and difficult to define for many people. Soft skills are great to have – but they do not make you stand out. The coming increase in supply of marketing job applicants means that you need hard skills that stand out.

Discounting soft skills is hard to take when we read everywhere that the world wants soft skills. Soft skills are supposed to be inherent in marketers, something we came from the factory with. We understand consumers, we can brief and assess creative, we have emotional intelligence – they’re our core competences. Therefore, they are not unique, rare or valuable.

Here’s what one mid-career marketer said to me after reading my April column: “I have skills that I thought were in high demand, like running great brands internationally, working with teams who loved me, doing great creative work and so on. Now that I am out of work, I find that these are not the real skills wanted. And they are specifically not of interest to the smaller owner-operated brands that I really want to work for. They want digital skills, hands-on technical skills that I don’t have.”

Many of you reading this will recoil in horror. You will find yourself saying a version of ‘that’s not how it should be’ or ‘that’s not fair’. If life were fair and how it should be, I would be 6ft 4in with six-pack abs, a full head of hair and no wrinkles. Erase the notions of ‘fair’ and ‘should’ when it comes to getting a new role. What’s going on in the world right now is evidence that they are not based on reality. And facing reality is what you must do.

The question remains: what skills should I develop for my career moat? This is where you need to think through a ‘skill stack’.

3. Start ‘stacking’ your skills

The starting point with skills is a realistic audit: look at yourself objectively and define the technical marketing skills you have, how you can portray them, and what you need to develop. I suggest you research the topic ‘T-shaped marketer’ and decide what you want to be your ‘T’ to be. In fact, I don’t want you to be a T at all, I want you to be a π-shaped marketer with multiple skills so that you can combine them.

The idea of combining skills in a way that’s unique to you is called ‘skill stacking’. The combination is far more useful than the sum of all your skills separately.

Worried graduates should still choose a marketing career

The great thing about skill stacking is that you do not have to be a total master at any one skill. Combining a variety of skills that you are only OK at can give you a unique competitive advantage. You can combine ordinary skills until you have enough to be an out-of-the-ordinary marketer.

Let’s use me as a guinea pig: I am good marketer, but maybe not that great compared to some others who have worked with bigger brands and bigger teams. I am an OK writer and can write interesting columns for Marketing Week, but I am hardly Ernest Hemingway. I am a good presenter and can think on my feet, but I am hardly Barack Obama in the rhetoric department.

I am expert in many aspects of strategy, brand and ecommerce, but I cannot really put a Shopify site together. I can write copy, but I am nothing compared to some of the amazing copywriters that I have worked with in ad agencies. I have domain expertise in the travel industry.

I am a π-shaped person. So are lots of people – however, thoughtfully combining this list of skills has allowed me to become a moderately successful marketer, columnist, adviser and speaker.

Develop your skill stack. For what it’s worth, I suggest that you specifically look at things that you don’t understand, try to get your head around them, and integrate them to your existing skills base.

Don’t know what ‘growth hacking’ is? Think it’s for charlatans who don’t really understand marketing? Then start there. Have no idea what marketing effectiveness is? Study Byron Sharp, Jenni Romaniuk, Wiemer Snijders, JP Hanson and so on.

4. Think ‘weak ties’, not networking

We all know the phrase ‘in life, it’s not what you know, but who you know’. Guess what? It’s true. In fact, the more advanced you get in a marketing career, the more those relationships matter — and the less your technical skills at SEO or putting together a shiny slide deck are an issue.

Having a great network is important. A lot of us want to meet someone who can give us our next big break. That’s a skill that you can develop. How? Ideally by being in the right place, knowing who to get in touch with or knowing how to write an email.

Yes, I know this sounds like ‘networking’. Yes, that makes me want to throw up too. The problem is that we have the wrong idea about it. The key to a network is to understand it is not the people who you know closely that matter – it is those that you have weak connections to. These are called ‘weak ties’.

In 1973, Mark Granovetter wrote a research paper about weak ties actually being strong (ie useful and important), since they can provide access to new resources and connections precisely because we share no associates with them. As a result, they connect us to parts of the world that we otherwise could not reach. Put another way, your friends are not going to get you a job or an introduction, but that person you met at a conference will, or the friend of a friend you see once a year.

5. Ask yourself ‘am I coachable’?

A friend of mine is a performance coach, working with world champion boxers, Olympic athletes and champion racing and rally drivers. He says the application and success rate of coaching is different from athlete to athlete. Not all coaching works. Why? It’s a two-sided relationship. You need a coach. And you need to be coachable.

He says: “The harsh reality is that many people don’t want help changing – they want a coach to tell them they’re fine as they are, or to agree with their versions of why things are going wrong.”

Being coachable means being open to asking for and receiving feedback, looking at yourself and being interested in growth.

When a person is coachable, they not only respond well when given feedback, they actively seek out feedback. They view the input from their coach and others as a valuable tool in their development. They are also willing to take actions and make personal changes based on the feedback.

Being coachable means being open to asking for and receiving feedback, looking at yourself and being interested in growth. You don’t take things personally or as a criticism; instead you listen, and use feedback to examine your own performance. If you really want to get that new role, you’ve got to have people in your life that are willing to tell you are doing it wrong or to do it differently – and be willing to accept and act on it.

6. ‘Optionality’, also known as ‘keep your options open’

The worst number in your career is the number one. One option, one skill, one choice, one hope. Just like investments should be diversified to avoid risk, your career should also be diversified in terms of skills and industries you rely upon.

Ideally, your options should have a limited downside and an open-ended upside. If we’ve specialised too much in one industry or one skill (instead of multiple skills), change is a threat, not an opportunity. We can never be certain where the opportunities are going to be, so we should always make choices to keep our options open. This is totally in keeping with the idea of building a ‘career moat’.

How we appraise options might seem to be a trivial matter. I never got the advice to keep my options open; I was told that the best option was FMCG or retail. This never rang true for me. For whatever reason – and, not, I might add, through some wise insight on my behalf – I have always preferred to keep my options open.

As the future gets harder to predict, preserving ‘optionality’ allows us to change tack when things get a little rocky. I know it’s counter-intuitive, but in reality, the more options we have, the better suited we are to deal with unpredictability and uncertainty.

The best option to choose is always the one that gives you more options. Occupying a small niche industry or skill sacrifices optionality. That gives marketers less freedom and greater dependency. No one can predict the future, so isn’t it a good idea to have as many avenues open as possible?

7. Protect your confidence

The difference between a good day and a bad day when you are thinking about your future is confidence. When we’re confident, we’re focused on the present rather than worried about the future, and that makes it much easier to see opportunities and turn inevitable job-hunting setbacks into breakthroughs. Your confidence is the foundation for the successes that you will have on the job hunt.

Yet when life is uncertain, our confidence takes the biggest wallop. Confidence is what makes you get out of bed in the morning. We tend to think of confidence as a personality trait or an emotional response, but my experience is that it isn’t as passive or reactive as that.

Why B2B is the new marketing career destination of choice

As my coach, Dan Sullivan, has taught me: “Contrary to popular belief, the biggest obstacle to confidence is not unfavourable circumstances, but rather bad measurement: comparing yourself to others or against some perfect ideal, instead of working with the actual material you have at hand – your unique advantages and situation.”

I’ve found that when you are on the job hunt you have to build confidence every day. And to make this confidence happen, I’ve been coached to keep it simple: target three or four ‘wins’ for the day. Recognise what gives you confidence: it could be activities, actions like getting an application in or any achievements – big or small. On a personal level, this might mean eating well or just going for exercise – anything that feels like a win to you. Then the same thing the next day.

Yes, it seems trivial at first, but the purpose of this exercise is to set up the ‘game’ so you’re always winning. It’s a confidence system built for you, by you, so it’s part of your daily routine. After a few days, you’ll notice that your mind is looking for wins to add to the list.

Final thought – be positive

It may not feel like it now, but you will be able to get through this.

For some people, getting laid off is viewed as the best thing that ever happened to them – even though this sounds impossible and counter-intuitive. The reason is simple: few of us are brave enough to make a decision ourselves to leave.

By being forced to face our future as well as look inside ourselves, we take a different perspective. We make choices that we would not have made – and we even take jobs that we would not have.

The opportunities that the internet – in the form of ecommerce – is throwing up barely existed 10 years ago. Even if you just want to ‘learn by doing’ and set up your own online store, you can do this now.

Author Seth Godin says: “Anyone with access to the internet owns their own factory and their own printing press.” That’s why I’m positive and optimistic about the future.