In the last chapter of my 18-year corporate career, I was laid off from my VP role soon after 9/11. The whole experience crushed my confidence and woke me up to the stark reality that how I was working was no longer working.
I felt pushed aside and thrown to the curb, which hurt even more after I learned I was being replaced by a young man many years my junior without the experience or accomplishments I’d achieved. I’m extremely thankful for that breakdown experience now because it catalyzed a total career reinvention, including the launch of my own coaching business, and becoming a writer, speaker and educator. But today, in working with so many mid-career professionals, I’m seeing them face the same devastating challenges I did years ago, including feeling “obsolete,” pushed aside and replaced by far younger professionals who have very different skills, and feeling lost in a sea of changes and technology that scares them.
To learn more about how professionals can bypass this experience of becoming obsolete or losing their jobs because they’re relying only on past experience to be of value, I was excited to catch up this month with Fawn Germer, top leadership speaker and bestselling author of nine leadership books featuring interviews with the greatest leaders of our times.
Oprah Winfrey called Germer’s first book, Hard Won Wisdom, “very inspiring” and Germer is now one of the most sought-after female keynote speakers, having headlined for Coca-Cola, Ford Motor Co., Novartis, Motorola, Accenture, KPMG, Boeing, and others—even the CIA. A four-time, Pulitzer-nominated reporter, she speaks internationally on leadership, performance and relevance and her latest book is Coming Back! How to Win the Job You Want When You’ve Lost the Job You Need.
Germer personally interviewed more than 300 CEOs, senior executives, professors, lawyers, organizational experts, industry leaders and other professionals to learn and share powerful tactics (and some much-needed tough love) calls to action, helping professionals who feel they’re in a stalemate in their careers learn, re-tool, connect, grow, and get ready to work again. And she explores why so many careers suddenly tank, pushing out once-great professionals and shares effective strategies to get back on track, reminding us that our greatest success may not even have happened yet.
Here’s what Germer shares:
Kathy Caprino: Your book, Coming Back! says many people are clueless that their careers are in a death spiral. What’s going on and what can they do?
Fawn Germer: There are millions of talented, dedicated professionals who think that their hard work is going to be recognized and rewarded. They think that years of service will be paid back with corporate loyalty. When things start changing too fast, they tell themselves, “I’ll just keep my head low.” So many professionals think they are safe and secure, but they are not – especially now when it doesn’t take much to wind up on the list of people chosen for a layoff.
So, you may think you are doing the best work you have ever done and be certain you are the best person for your job today. But you have to factor in the breakneck pace of change in the workplace. Things are changing so rapidly, and the pace of change is accelerating every day so that the skills that are making you successful now are likely going to expire in a few years.
If you are not actively learning what’s coming and preparing by independently taking online classes that upskill you to be in front of change, you are branding yourself as a has-been. And that’s even if you are hitting home runs every single day. Many companies don’t care if you are the best person for the job today. They want to know you are going to be the best person in five years.
That’s especially important if you’ve been there awhile. Your salary is higher than new, younger talent that is more technologically current and agile. They may well be capable of delivering twice as much as you are – for a half or a third the cost. So, which employee is the better investment? Companies are generally more concerned about the bottom line than being nice to people.
Caprino:You write about the “death of experience”—the notion that decades of experience don’t matter much is a harsh concept. Please explain.
Germer: It is infuriating and insulting. You have accomplished so much and it should count for a lot. It should command respect. And yet, it seems to count for nothing.
Unfortunately, experience doesn’t count for much these days. The more you prattle on about what you’ve seen and done during the last two or three decades, the more it brands you as the face of the past. A has-been. Contrast that with new, younger, less-expensive talent that screams of fresh ideas that will advance the company with new or soon to be available technology.
And yet, it is psychologically hard to let go of our experience as the measure of our value because we worked so hard and did so much. Surely companies appreciate that, right? Not so much. Surely they see the value of someone with institutional memory, right? Uh, it’s institutional.
Your experience is an asset after you can showcase that you are the voice of the future and that you have been such an active independent learner that you are future focused, future ready and future driven. Then your experience is a bonus that can position you for greater opportunities. But if you aren’t ready to drive things in the future, you are viewed as stuck in the past.
Caprino: Tell us more about why you say we need to take a “tough-love look” at our careers if we want to continue to have meaningful opportunities.
Germer: It is easy to stay in denial about our deficiencies because we see ourselves doing great work. It’s hard to admit, “Well, I have fallen behind and I need to do something.” I interviewed more than 300 people for my book and the thing that surprised me most was how shocked people were that a career derailment happened to them.
All of us are vulnerable and the only way to sustain our careers is to be relevant, current and future-driven. You can do that! But only if you admit that you must. What do they always say? “Step one is admitting you have a problem.”
Caprino: So once we admit we have a problem, what steps can we take to catch up and go beyond in order to become more viable at work or as job applicants?
Germer: The good news is that you can be way behind and still learn what you need to know in order to have a thriving career. This may seem intimidating because you likely don’t know what you need to learn. But, you can figure that out easily if you search online for “Trends in (fill in the blank) industry.” Then search to see how Artificial Intelligence, robotics, blockchain, big data and machine learning will impact your industry, your profession and your specific job.
Then look online to find classes to teach you how to prepare for those changes. You can find a ton of great, valuable learning taught by top professors from Ivy League and other major schools—for FREE—at Coursera.org and Edx.org. You don’t need to be a programmer. You just need to know how those technologies work and how they will change your future so you can innovate new ideas that will help drive into the future.
Then, read, read, read. Read The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, Inc., and all of your trade publications. You don’t have to read every article, but you want to know what is going on. It is amazing how quickly you can get caught up. If you don’t understand something, hit YouTube and watch a few videos. I do that all the time. And when something is still too complex, I just find a video teaching the topic to someone in elementary school. Then I get it!
Caprino: Millions of unemployed people have been languishing without hope for a very long time. How can they restore hope and confidence?
Germer: The minute you tell yourself there is no hope or opportunity, poof! There is no hope and opportunity. Some people break through. Why not you? Make up your mind that you will win and don’t quit until you do – even if you get pushed back over and over and over again. Always have a to-do list filled with small steps you can take to keep yourself moving toward your goal.
When you feel stuck, do one more thing, then another. You never know how close you are to turning the corner until you turn the corner. Just keep moving forward.
Caprino:: Any final wisdom?
Germer: Try not to take your obstacles personally. Corporate America can be harsh and brutal, and millions of other talented people are experiencing the same slap in the face. So don’t let this undermine your confidence.
This moment is your call to action. Tell yourself, “I’m. Not. Done.” Then, rise up and fight back by diving into the widely available learning that will make you more current and viable. Make sure you showcase your continued learning on your resume, LinkedIn, and in conversations. Up your game by making sure you don’t look sloppy or frumpy. You are marketing yourself as a relevant, with-it contributor who has so much to offer.
You are defined by what you will do in the future, not what you’ve done in the past. If you spend a few months diving in, learning what’s going on, then figuring out how to use that knowledge and advertise that you are current, you will be amazed how your stock will rise.
This isn’t going to kill you. It’s going to launch your comeback.
For more information, visit Coming Back! How to Win the Job You Want When You’ve Lost the Job You Need.
Kathy Caprino is a career and leadership coach, speaker, educator, and author of The Most Powerful You: 7 Bravery-Boosting Paths to Career Bliss. She helps professional women build their best careers through her Career & Leadership Breakthrough programs and Finding Brave podcast.