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The bounce-back solution: is your job on the line? Here's how you can rebound from a career crisis.

Carol N. Cooper has just about made it. After more than a dozen years in human resource management most of them spent at Somerville, N.J.-based Ethicon Inc., she is now just one notch from her department's top spot. As director of human resources for the Johnson & Johnson subsidiary, Cooper oversees the work of managers at seven Ethicon plants, coordinating and ensuring the consistency of programs and services offered to the company's 6,000 employees. It's a plum position, and one she relishes, particularly since getting there was a lot tougher than her resume implies.

Undetectable amid the responsibilities and achievements outlined in Cooper's impressive vitae is the struggle she encountered in the midst of her career at Ethicon. Like many ambitious professionals, Cooper says she reached a point where she felt she wasn't being viewed as a "viable and equal resource." Her frustration mounted as people who were hired after her, who she trained, who worked for her, sprang past her while she butted heads with a manager who, Cooper says, "routinely tried to negate my contributions."

The manager wasn't her only problem. Even in the midst of the go-go '80s, blacks and women were crashing against the perennial glass ceiling at Ethicon more often than not. Says Cooper: "The track record of the company seemed to be that there were certain jobs for blacks, certain jobs for women and certain jobs for black women. [White men] were making decisions about my career without ever talking to me about what I could or could not deal with."

Locked in battle with her manager and pigeonholed by entrenched corporate views about minorities and women, Cooper found herself treading water. She knew that, if she did nothing, inevitably she would go under. Thanks to a willingness to reposition herself, a bit of luck (her manager ultimately retired) and a lot of determination, she forged a win-win situation out of what, for others at Ethicon, led to the exit door.

In this era of manic focus on the bottom line at companies large and small, no one can afford to lag behind or fall out of favor with the powers controlling advancement. Maybe you've been placed on probation, given three months to get your act together. Perhaps you've merely had a tactful review implying your work could improve. Or, you may simply not be getting along with your boss for reasons having nothing at all to do with your performance. Whichever scenario fits, it's time to act if you're in a job you want to keep.

Take Action Now

If you've noted a recent shift in the way you or your work are being perceived, don't wait to swing things back in your favor. The key to keeping your career on track is being proactive, and "the sooner the better," says Ed Flowers, director of human resources at Fisher Controls International Inc. in St. Louis, Mo.

Cooper did all the right things. She assessed her situation and herself. She took stock of her strengths and maintained a can-do attitude. She highlighted those strengths and introduced strategies for improvement at meetings she initiated with everyone she could, her difficult supervisor included.

Rather than bucking lackluster opportunities - lateral moves in lieu of promotions, for instance - she made the most of them. Staying focused on her goals, she apprised others of the contributions she envisioned and felt capable of making. Among them was the implementation of a companywide intervention on managing diversity, which Cooper oversaw in 1988. With a consultant, Ethicon worked to examine and destroy internal barriers that were inhibiting the progress of blacks and women at the company.

Many were skeptical of the program, recalls Cooper, but it worked. Having racked up three promotions in the last five years, Cooper says, "People have recognized that I have a lot to contribute to help the company be a viable entity. If they hadn't allowed me in the game, they would have lost that contribution." But Cooper wasn't just "allowed" in. She swung into motion and forged her way through.

If your job is already on the line, then you'll face a stiff challenge in attempting to turn the tide. Flowers says that in his experience, even 80% of those who develop an action plan fail to save their jobs. Why? Typically, they waited too long. But there's always that 20% chance to shoot for, and it may not be too late for you. Whether your aim is to save your job, or merely improve your company standing, here's a plan of action to help put you back on track to success.

1. Evaluate Your Work Environment

Crucial to your success is being keenly aware of your company's culture and how you fit in. Even if you're a 20-year veteran there, you must recognize that your work environment is an evolving, constantly changing entity, particularly now when so many companies are restructuring their staffs, reshaping their images and revamping their rules and procedures. Don't allow yourself to fall out of the loop.

For African-Americans especially, this is essential, says Melvin T. Williams Jr., co-founder and president of Delphi Consulting Group Inc., a White Plains, N.Y., management consulting and training firm. "Many black folks have learned at our grandfather's knees, if you work hard and you keep clean, you'll do well. In today's corporate environment, that's not enough," says Williams. "You have to understand the mind-set of your organization to succeed. No matter how sophisticated and capable in their jobs people are, if they can't get a handle on what's going on culturally in their companies, they're going to be misreading cues right and left."

Taking responsibility for your own progress means more than dressing the part, staying on budget and pumping out your product. "It means knowing which barbecues are really important to attend," says Williams. "It means knowing who makes the decisions and how things get done. Maybe the really important meetings are held at a sports bar after hours - maybe that's where the real decisions are made." If you're not in on those meetings, you should at least be aware of what's being discussed there.

2. Assess Your Skills And Work Style

Career crises usually arise for one of two reasons: Either because of technical problems (a lack of know-how or skills needed for the job) or interpersonal problems. For African-Americans, these may be compounded by institutional problems, where a company's culture works against the success of minorities.

Before you assume the latter is the case, scrutinize yourself carefully and candidly before ruling out the first two. Honesty, however brutal, is key. Many people won't acknowledge shortcomings in their skills or experience for fear of reprisal or demotion. Still others believe they know what they know and that's enough. Not possible, Williams says. "There are too many things changing," he asserts. "I don't care what industry you're in, if you're not reading and listening to what the current events are in your industry or area of expertise, you're going to be quickly dated and unable to succeed."

Face up to your deficiencies and find out how to fill the gaps in your skills or knowledge. If that means taking advantage of in-house training programs, do it. If it means going to classes, seminars or workshops outside, do it. Your company might even pick up the tab, notes Flowers, who has done so for certain Fisher Controls employees. In any case, whatever will improve your marketability is a worthwhile career investment with potentially vast returns.

The interpersonal area can be more tricky. If you're in an organization where you yell and scream and pound the table because that's how people operate, that's fine. But if you're in a place where raising your voice is met with raised eyebrows, you have to be aware of such subtleties. Again, says Williams, African-Americans have to be particularly keen in this area. "Reinforcing stereotypes - aggression is one - does not work in your favor," Williams says.

Unintentionally and unwittingly, certain attitudes may tangibly affect your work. If you hate certain aspects of your job (filing status reports, for example), you may procrastinate (and routinely submit them late), much to your boss's chagrin. Perhaps problems in your personal life (a divorce or death in the family) are affecting your work. Take stock of such things and address them.

Be as objective as possible in measuring yourself against your colleagues, subordinates, superiors. Ask them how you're doing and get their advice on how to do things that may give you trouble. Co-workers or peers in your field may have organizational systems or routines that could be helpful to you. Most career consultants administer self-assessment surveys that can be useful in making many of these determinations. Your company's personnel director or the career placement officer at your local college should be able to refer you to one.

If, in fact, all indicators show that your problems are linked to prejudices against your race, gender, age, or sexual preference, keep a detailed written record of what is happening that feeds this conclusion. Then inform your company's equal employment opportunity officer, says employment lawyer Darryl K. Henderson, equal opportunity affairs coordinator for Monsanto Co.'s Agricultural Group in St. Louis.

3. Adjust Your Attitude

Professionals too often greet bad news - whether a tepid response to their project or a warning call for overall improvement - with an equally negative response. "They start moping around," says Karl Gimber, senior vice president at Right Associates, a Philadelphia-based outplacement firm. "That's counterproductive." Anger, defensiveness or depression may be the most natural reflexes, but they are among the worst, given your goal of success.

Even if you've been placed on probation, try to view that from the upside: They're giving you a chance to improve. "Seize that chance, rather than viewing it as the last step before the inevitable," says Gimber. "Start by getting to work on time - which usually means getting there early. Don't watch the clock, put in those hours. Volunteer for now projects. In other words, display the attributes that show what you're capable of and deliver the message |l want this job.'"

Robert M. Hecht, co-chairman of New York-based Lee Hecht Harrison Inc., a human resources consulting firm, agrees. "No matter how dejected you feel," he says, "your ability to save your job depends on positioning yourself with a positive attitude that says, |I will do whatever I can to make things work.' If you view yourself as a person in need and you talk only about what you need and what you want, people are going to come back with, |But what can you do for us?' You have to help yourself."

4. Initiate A Meeting

Helping yourself doesn't mean shutting yourself off and working feverishly with no clear direction or outside input. In the midst of crisis, you may seek to isolate yourself. Your first impulse may be to recoil from colleagues to avoid gossip about your predicament, to steer clear of supervisors, hoping that if you just don't call attention to yourself, you can prevent the other shoe from dropping. Again, understandable but counterproductive.

"If you're hiding and you don't want to talk about [your problems] and you don't know how to change, or what to change, that other shoe is going to drop anyway," says Jeffrey Goldberg, chief psychologist at N.Y.-based Personnel Sciences Center Inc. "What is really just plain fear may be perceived as unwillingness to deal with the situation."

All nine of the career counselors interviewed for this article agreed that an open discussion about your predicament with one or more of your supervisors is crucial. The crux of the meeting is to communicate your desire to succeed, to make your supervisors and the company look good, and to discuss the best ways to make those things happen.

Before you even call the meeting, says Jan Anderson Huebner, human resources director at Maritz Information Resources in Fenton, Mo., "Ditch the chip on your shoulder." Go in with a positive attitude, high energy and a list of well-developed suggestions for improvement. ("Don't argue, don't debate, don't defend," Huebner advises.) Be prepared to listen. Take copious notes.

5. Structure A Well-defined Plan For

Success

Your goal is to emerge from this meeting with a laundry list of steps you will take to succeed and an agreed upon time frame for achieving that. The keys here are clarity and specificity, "Too often supervisors communicate problems in vague terms," notes Goldberg. "That vagueness can create missteps on the employee's part." It's incumbent upon you to push for the clarity you need.

Basic questions to ask: What should you do less of? What should you do more of? What should you do differently? Don't settle for general responses. If you're told you need to do better at customer service, don't assume what that means, says Huebner. Find out specifically what you have to do to improve that function. Do you have to return calls more quickly? Soften your phone manner? Meet your deadlines? Manage your department more efficiently? Delegate more? Delegate less? Write more effective letters?

Once you have agreed upon what's needed, map out ample time for the improvements to occur. "It doesn't usually happen overnight, to change or to assess a change," notes Goldberg. If your boss says six weeks and you know you'll need eight, suggest a more realistic period. If you don't, you're helping to build an obstacle to your own success.

Finally, suggests Flowers, put your plan in the form of a written agreement to be signed by you and your manager, and set a specific date for a review of your performance. This way, there can be no confusion later as to what was said.

6. Work Your Plan, Seek Feedback, Rally Support

Stephanie Nickerson, assistant professor at the New York's New School for Social Research's Graduate School of Management and Urban Policy, says, whether you have five weeks or five months to institute your plan, set up incremental goals for yourself, so you can see gradual and definite improvement.

For instance, if you're in sales and you've been given three months to improve your productivity by X amount, aim for a certain degree of progress by the end of the first month, a greater amount by the end of the second, and hit the ultimate goal by the third. Better to show consistent improvement than to hit your goal the first month, fall back the second, and sputter ahead the third, says Nickerson.

Experts advise that you seek feedback constantly. "Managers should formally, clearly, consistently communicate how employees are doing," says labor lawyer Henderson. "But very often, especially when they have bad news, they don't say anything, or they communicate poorly."

To get the most accurate picture of how you're doing, says Henderson, go beyond supervisors to customers, mentors, team members, colleagues, subordinates. This can be touchy, but remember, you don't have to share your troubles to simply find out how you're doing. If the feedback from other sources is more positive than that coming from your boss, ask your supporters - especially on the client side - to submit written or verbal testimonials to your supervisor and the head of personnel. Now is no time to hide your light under a basket.

7. Face Up To Your Future

If you have gotten ample feedback, you should have no question as to your fate. Beyond that, says Flowers, you should constantly be evaluating your own progress. If you are well into the process and realize it's not working, don't wait for the axe to fall. Again, take the initiative. "Propose a better position for yourself," says Hecht. "Acknowledge that things are not working out in your current position but affirm that you could bring new skills, new talents and new ideas to old problems in another area." As always, be specific.

If you recognize before your employer does that you simply must move on, begin preparing for your exit. If, on the other hand, things are working, stay focused. Don't ease up at the first sign of a breakthrough. Do more than push toward your goals, says Flowers: "Go beyond them."

8. Maintain The Momentum

Several experts say they have watched people jump through all the hoops above and improve their professional standing markedly only to slip back into the behaviors and work habits that got them into a fix in the first place.

The process of saving your job has to translate into one of keeping your job, then getting a promotion, then another, and so on throughout your career. There is no quick fix that will stand you in good stead for the duration of your working life. Again and again, you will be called upon to prove your competence. There will always be managers who are difficult to work with, or who discount your aptitude and doubt your potential.

To thrive in today's work force, regardless of where on the totem pole you sit, regard the bounce-back solution as an ongoing process, an integral part of your career development. Used properly, it may keep you from confronting a career crisis in the first place.

WHEN THE HANDWRITING IS ON THE WALL

Any chance you have of sidestepping termination is rooted in recognizing its warning signs. The it-can't-happen-to-me syndrome can lead straight to the unemployment line. Here's how to break out of it:

* Read the papers: Keep current with what's happening in your industry internationally, nationally and locally. Stay on top of the related news, trends and developments reported in newspapers, magazines and trade journals. Even if your company is doing well, if your industry is hurting, you should be watchful.

* Tap into the company grapevine: Just because your industry is booming, don't assume your company is healthy. It can just as easily be dying a slow death. You have to take a personal interest in your company's bottom line performance. Read its annual report. Don't toss companywide performance updates, believing that your doing well personally is all that matters. Even if your firm has a no-layoffs policy, if it's bleeding money, ultimately, something's going to have to give.

* Assess the value of your department: What does your department's track record look like? Are your boss and your division head valued participants in the company? How is your department or division doing? If yours is strictly a cost center and not a profit center, you are at risk in this economic environment. When it comes to cutting, firms will slice human resources a lot sooner than the sales force.

* Be aware of subtle signals: One of the first indicators of job trouble is a sub-par performance review.

Even if your boss cites you as average, but doesn't seem to put much thought into it, beware. If he or she can be indifferent in reviewing you, he or she can be indifferent in cutting you loose. You have to evaluate who you're dealing with. If your manager is opposed to helping you improve, or is not receptive to your strategies for getting ahead, it's probably time to cut the cord. If people stop seeking your input, take heed. They may be pulling away from you because they sense you've fallen out of favor.

* Take a hard look in the mirror: If you're working hard, but still not getting the job done, it's time to find a more suitable position. Take responsibility for your own career.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Earl G. Graves Publishing Co., Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article on recognizing potential signs for termination or career stagnation
Author:Clarke, Carolyn V.
Publication:Black Enterprise
Date:Jul 1, 1993
Words:3241
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