Coping in Corporate America

Corporate America has come under attack recently as a huge part of the problem plaguing us here in the US. They are blamed for being greedy, paying their execs huge salaries and bonuses and abandoning ethics altogether. In some cases, they produce toxic waste and cut corners that result in unsafe products being loosed on the public. In some cases they play fast and loose with regulators or offer them bribes. They ship jobs offshore and open call centers in India and China. Huge numbers of people have been laid off in the auto industry and various tech sectors. Unemployment is at an all-time high.

It’s all true, but….I’ve worked in this arena for over forty years and somehow I’ve survived. It hasn’t always been a bed of roses, and I’ve even been laid off a few times. It comes with the territory. I did consulting and freelancing and temping for awhile (code for “doing anything I can get until a real job comes along”). It was touch and go sometimes. But I’ve aligned myself with the Energizer Bunny and the bad penny – I keep coming back and turning up. Sometimes I’ve surprised myself. And I haven’t had to eat at a soup kitchen yet or stand in line at the food bank.

Let me comment on what has worked for me. I didn’t always know all the tricks of the trade. I had to read up and try things I’d never done before. The giant arena of “learning” turned out to be vastly larger than I’d ever dreamed. I learned to network like crazy. It doesn’t happen overnight. It starts slowly and builds slowly. But it is worth it. And by networking I don’t just mean professional groups for white collar workers in a particular field (healthcare, engineering, insurance, the tech sector) although that is certainly part of it.

If you aren’t a “group person,” start by joining a bridge group, or a book club or Toastmasters (public speaking club). Sometimes they are offered in community centers, senior centers (they’ll let you in if you’re 50, and heaven knows, most 50-year olds are still working) and church groups. If you know co-workers who are in such groups, find out where they meet. It is worth driving 7 or 10 miles for. It can be stress-relieving and educational too. This gives you a chance to hone your social skills, to talk in groups, bone up on your schmoozing abilities, develop a comfort level at shaking hands and making eye contact, become adept at talking to strangers. Do this in advance of need – don’t wait to start doing this after you’re laid off, or your plant has closed. If you find yourself unemployed, you already have resources. You might find that a group member’s spouse or relative, or someone’s father could give you a lead or a pointer. That is sometimes all it takes to get started.

If you’ve been laid off, downsized or RIFed (reduction in force), you may start with crying and wailing, a drink and a short pity party. OK, you’re entitled. After all, you’re human. But keep it short. If you feel you need counseling, consider talking to a minister or rabbi. They rarely charge for their services and are usually very empathetic and often have good ideas. If nothing else, they can provide emotional and psychological support during your search – that alone is a huge asset. You can wear out a spouse or friends when you look to them for your sole source of support in difficult times. If you’re not a church-goer, ask a friend. They may tell you their minister is the greatest thing since Marcus Welby, Dr. Phil and the Dalai Lama, rolled into one.

Keep your resume current. Every web site and every career counseling workshop on job hunting will put this high on the list of important things to do. Use the internet to find a resume template that you like so you don’t have to start from scratch. Include a section that talks about your skills, rather than just list jobs you’ve held and dates of employment. When relevant, include such things as: committed and dependable worker, superior work ethic, natural leader, learn new concepts readily and easily, flexibility, always looking for new challenges, motivated self-starter, bilingual, excellent written communication skills and good grammar. These are so-called “soft skills” but employers want these, in addition to your computer skills, your ability to assemble widgets or manage projects.

Let’s say a certain job calls for some project management. You’re not a project manager, but in your church you’ve led committees, headed fundraisers, and planned events. These are transferrable skills. Talk them up. If you’ve been good at these in a church or professional organization (like American Legion or Lion’s Club or even Girl Scouts or Little League), it means you can organize, plan, meet deadlines and manage tasks and people. I had a long stint in a professional insurance organization and in Toastmasters, and I developed a lot of these skills. Plus I became active in lay leadership in a small church. Believe me, you learn a lot in these settings. Be sure to mention them on your resume, and if asked about them in an interview, be prepared to give examples. “I was the fund raising chair for my church’s annual canvass. We had a financial goal of $200,000. We actually raised $235,000 and I was very proud of our results.” Or, “We needed an adult religious education program. I was appointed to set it up. I chose a committee, and we held several months of meetings determining what sorts of courses and workshops to offer, and who to recruit as facilitators. We ended up running eight workshops over two years on six different topics. It was very well received.” That shows, specifically, how you take initiative, plan, organize and lead.

Find someone who will do a mock interview with you, maybe someone you know through social ties or a former coworker. Pick someone you see as a potential role model if you can, someone who appears at ease with talking and socializing. Tell them the sort of job you’re after and ask them to play the role of the interviewer. If you can find an acquaintance through church or another group who has been a supervisor or manager, that’s even better. They are already skilled at interviewing and role playing would be easy for them. In preparation for a real interview, read up on corporations and what they do. Find out which ones are considered good companies to work for (like Google or Costco). Find out which ones have a social conscience and give a portion of their earning to philanthropic and charitable endeavors, toward sponsorships of such things as the Special Olympics or local social causes.

Check out your local Department of Employment (EDD in California, and goes by various other names elsewhere). Some offer assistance in writing resumes and tips for going on interviews. Some have computers you can use. Some offer workshops and seminars for white collar workers and executives who are often looking in a slightly different job market and may have to market themselves differently.

Learn how to do what is called a 30-second commercial about yourself. It’s a wedge you can use in networking opportunities that creates interest in the other person and plants a seed so that when they hear of a job opening in the near future, they just might remember that you are looking and sound capable. There are lots of internet sites that offer pointers on how to do this. Practice in front of a mirror with watch or stop watch until you became skilled.

Sometimes when big corporations downsize in one area, there are still jobs available in other sectors within the same company. If your skills are sharp and you are versatile, and you’re doing all the things I mentioned above, you could be ready to move laterally to some other area. You’re ready to hit the ground running with your toolbox of skills, if need be.

It all comes down to learning and growing. Develop the best you that you can. In today’s employment scene, almost everyone will need to look for a job, many of us sooner rather than later. If you’re prepared and confident, the process will be so much easier. Confidence and self-worth go a long way toward making opportunities happen. At various times, I’ve done all of these things. Sometimes it was hard. Some parts were easier or harder than others. Some of it was sheer torture. But I did it. I put one foot in front of the other until it got easier.

So, do you wonder what this has to do with corporate America? Does it sound like I’m off topic? The fact is that corporate America isn’t perfect and often needs help. When they have lay-offs, it is because something isn’t quite right. A strategic plan or a projection has gone awry. Profits are down and shareholders are mad. The work ethic isn’t quite everything it once was. You probably already know that. There are a lot of things needed to buoy it up, reengineer it, fix it, and that will strengthen our corporations. And some of it will be a grass roots effort – getting good workers at the entry and lower levels, who can take initiative, be promoted and solve problems. Not only do all these efforts improve you and your self worth, they go a long way toward strengthening large organizations. Ghandi said “be the change you want to see in the world.” Paraphrased, you can be the change you want to see in corporate America. I’d like to see the work ethic come storming back, stronger than ever. And it could start with a few stalwart folks and new college grads who’ve done their homework, fine-tuned their skills, and shown up to stay the course. Wouldn’t we all like to be a part of that?