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A Career Survival Kit

Cover Story


You'll need a whole new set of charts and sextants to navigate your career in the 1990s. Toss overboard those warm, cozy feelings about companies being family. Jettison those traditional ideas about corporate loyalty and reward for performance. Facing hard truths is the order of the day: Today, you work for yourself, your real family comes first, and no big organization is going to take care of you anymore. So get tough: Start building your own survival kit. Begin managing your career. Here's how to do it.

Since you're worth only what you can sell, you'd better have plenty to peddle. Start by asking yourself a brutal question: What would you do if you were fired tomorrow and had to look for customers, not a job? What exactly do you do that people would pay money for? "Assessing one's own skills is one of the most difficult things in the world," says Kenneth Taylor, a partner at Egon Zehnder International Inc., one of the world's largest executive-search firms. "People usually have latent skills that are not obvious."

Taylor should know. Before getting into the head-hunting business, he was a banker at Manufacturers Hanover Corp. for 10 years. He opened its Chicago office in 1978 and built it to 300 people. In 1988, Taylor began to have misgivings about Manny Hanny's long-term ability to compete in global banking. "The handwriting was on the wall back then," he says.

CLOSER LOOK. Then, Taylor examined what he really did for a living. Sure, finance was a big part of it. But so was communication, negotiation, and people assessment. After an eight-month courtship with an executive-search firm, he jumped industries and started a new career as a headhunter.

A narrow focus on a single specialty doesn't do much for your employability quotient. The more tasks you've performed and the more problems you've solved, the greater your chances of getting another job. So don't get stuck doing the same thing year in, year out. "You shouldn't just keep getting to be a better and better accountant," says Barry Schlosser, president of career counselor Clarity Consulting Corp. "You need a diversity of skills in your career portfolio. The more you have, the more marketable you are."

Hindi Greenberg, for example, started her career as a lawyer at a big firm in San Francisco. She hated the hours and eventually left--but not before distilling the essence of her job. "What I really did was analysis, research, writing, and public speaking," she says. Greenberg then used those skills to help launch California Connection, a hotel-reservation service. That experience gave her the skills to begin her own business, Lawyers in Transition, a consulting organization for dropout attorneys.

TWISTS AND TURNS. Entrepreneurial zeal is great, but never forget that large companies can be great schools: Think of them as learn-while-you-earn programs. Hands-on management, for example, is an absolute requirement in today's job market. So people in staff jobs should seek line responsibilities. Seasoned operating managers, on the other hand, should pick up planning or development experience to round out their portfolios.

A diverse resume should also help you ride out the twists of the economy and the whims of financial fashion. Since no one knows exactly which skills will be in demand in the future, you'd better have several to offer. The first quarter of 1991 saw a threefold jump in the number of openings for chief financial officers, according to the newsletter Executive Search Review. Most of those jobs shared one requirement: Candidates had to have cost-control skills. Four years ago, when the leveraged-buyout cowboys were still riding high on Wall Street, the demand was for CFOs with corporate-finance experience.

The new job equation is simple: Visibility equals marketability equals security. It's vital to have a high profile. When corporations played pater familias and jobs were forever, people didn't have to market themselves constantly. Now that they do, having visibility is like having a brand name.

So don't toil away anonymously for three years with five other people on a back-office project to improve your company's internal-auditing system. "You want to make sure you don't get buried too long in a work project," says Charles Handy, a visiting professor at London Business School. "You might not be remembered." Instead, you're better off working on a hot new product or service that gets sold in the marketplace. Getting face-to-face contact with customers is an added bonus. And don't forget to

manage your job assignments with your resume in mind (table, page 104).

But don't count on a strong resume to get you a job. New survival strategies are much more important. One is moonlighting. You might help a startup computerize its accounting, develop a business plan, or find suppliers or customers. And lest you feel a twinge of guilt, remember that your chief executive officer is probably moonlighter-in-chief. When they sit on boards of other companies, CEOs are making contacts, learning new information, and raising their visibility--while drawing their own salary and bonuses plus the board compensation. It's no accident that many CEOs job-hop along their board network. And what's good for a CEO is good for a middle manager or a staff professional.

BUDDY SYSTEMS. Networking has always played a big part in job-switching, but today, it's essential. When jobs were stable and advancement steady, people networked intermittently and sparingly. Now, with mounting corporate layoffs, networking is becoming a permanent feature of professional lives.

Don't wait until you're laid off to network--join networking groups while you still have a job. Sure, you may spend a lot of time helping others find jobs. But after one or two downsizings, you'll be street-smart enough to know that the folks you help with job tips today will help you tomorrow. So take a look at the new permanent job-networking groups that have sprung up for professionals.

Composed of thousands of people who still have jobs and many more who just lost them, these professional buddy systems have the aura of an underground railroad. In one typical group that meets every week in Paramus, N. J., some of the senior human-resources managers are currently employed. Others are casualties of America's corporate wars who have been LBO'd and downsized out of jobs. Most are in their forties and fifties. Two-thirds are men, one-third women. They come wearing business clothes and sit at a round table in a small office provided by Drake, Beam, Morin Inc., a large outplacement firm. The first business of the day is passing around faxes on possible jobs from dozens of similar human-resources networking groups in Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, and other cities.

Then, each person passes around a list of jobs that he or she has heard about. The information includes the source of the lead, compensation, title, a brief description, a contact--often someone at a search firm--and specific skills and experiences required. "This networking all began when basically everybody was employed," says Patrick Ahearn, a senior human-resources manager who has been downsized out of three jobs in four years. "We're helping each other with the expectation that one day, the grim reaper is going to lop off whichever department we happen to be working in, and we will find ourselves out of work and out of money. This is a place to fall back on."

The new networks have become a permanent feature of members' lives. "It's a life preserver," says another participant who requested anonymity. "The system has collapsed, and you know you're going to depend on these people in the future. Keeping in contact has become very important to all of us."

You might check out Exec-U-Net, a nationwide networking organization for managers and professionals. For $300 a year, members get access to a computer data base of jobs carrying salaries of $75,000 or more, and they can attend monthly meetings for professionals in general management, finance, management-information systems, sales, marketing, law, and operations.

Most members have jobs, but many have already been through a corporate purge or two. The computer network is their way of keeping in touch with the job market. "Membership is confidential," says Executive Director David Opton. "People send in information on the exact skill sets or experience wanted by companies. At the same time, they are plugging into the information provided by other members. They know that their job status could change at any moment."

For the executive making $100,000 to $200,000 a year, search firms are critical job brokers. Heidrick & Struggles, Korn/Ferry International, SpencerStuart, and others can prove invaluable in negotiating entry into--and exit from--a company. Get to know the key headhunters in your profession--not just your industry--and do it before you need them. If you have the leverage, make sure you'll be protected if your new employer shrinks, merges, or sells out from under you. "Candidates who companies really want have enormous bargaining power and are demanding monetary protection up front in case something happens outside the person's control," says Egon Zehnder's Taylor.

KEY CLAUSES. What's hot at the top are contracts with prearranged entry and exit terms. These include big up-front signing bonuses and guarantee a year or more of compensation and benefits if you're forced to leave. Some execs are even getting 18 months' salary deposited in escrow. "I make sure they have two clauses in their employment contracts," says David Werner of David Werner International, a search firm for senior executives. "Going in, a performance bonus such as options or shadow stock to plug into the success of their efforts. Going out, a year's salary and continued medical benefits."

Exit contracts saved Ahearn from financial disaster. "I was in the human-resources field, so I was experienced enough to protect myself," says Ahearn. "I saw so many people get burned in downsizings that it became very necessary to say at the beginning of a job that I want to have an understanding as to how we are going to part company."

Don't get caught by surprise when that parting of the ways comes. Corporations used to provide social services such as health benefits, life insurance, pensions, and even child care. No longer. Unless the government begins to pick up some of the slack, you're on your own.

You'll learn this lesson painfully if you lose your job and are forced to buy your own insurance--especially health insurance. Don't panic. If you're leaving a corporation with more than 20 employees, you can continue to receive its group health insurance for up to 18 months by paying the company's group health premium plus 1% or 2%. But start shopping right away. Never "go bare," or skip insurance while looking for a new job. A major illness can wipe out your savings in months. So insure against medical catastrophe quickly.

CALL AROUND. No matter what you decide to do, it will not be cheap. Blue Cross & Blue Shield Assn. coverage can easily cost $4,000 to $5,000 a year for a family. Group plans with big deductibles--say, $1,000--can cost about 20% less. Professional organizations and trade groups often offer such plans, and anyone over 55 (or with a spouse over 55) should look into the American Association of Retired Persons' group health plan and its mail-order pharmacy. Health-maintenance organizations can be a good value, too. Ifyou belonged to an HMO through your employer, you may be able to keepup your membership when you leave.You'll need to buy life insurance on your own, too. Make sure you keep it cheap and keep it simple. "Term life"--meaning straight insurance without the investment component of "whole life"--is relatively inexpensive. Buy just enough to protect your family against your death. The National Insurance Consumer Organization recommends seven times your income if you have a family with two or more kids. Remember: Don't mix that kind of protection with savings or investments. And if you have no dependents, you may not need life insurance at all.

Most people forget disability insurance, especially since it's even more expensive than health insurance. But insuring your income is as important as insuring against a health emergency. The best coverage in your 30s and 40s may be an annually renewable disability-income (ARDI) policy. The initial price is low and rises slowly over time. Switch to a fixed policy once you hit your 50s.

You should take out a private disability policy even if you're still working at a large corporation. Chances are the company's coverage isn't enough. It makes sense to set up your own disability insurance now and beef it up once you move on. Besides, if you work at home at a later date, getting disability won't be easy. But don't bother with credit-card or mortgage insurance. They're expensive, and the money can be better used in a disability policy.

DEEP BREATH. If you're moonlighting, you should also think about establishing a Keogh-type pension plan in preparation for leaving the fold. Go to a banker or broker and set up a Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) plan. These let you contribute up to 13.04% of your self-employment earnings--up to $30,000 a year.

When you leave your employer, one of your first choices will be whether or not to grab your pension money in a lump sum and run. You may be eager to cut all ties to the organization, especially if you've been laid off. But take a deep breath, and wait a minute. Looking for a job or setting up your own business is hard enough without having to worry about managing your pension funds. If you are satisfied with the investment performance and safety of your former company's pension funds, you may want to leave both the defined-benefit and defined-contribution monies with the company for six months to a year. Once you take your 401(k) and defined-benefit funds out, you have to roll them into an IRA or into another company's pension fund within 60 days or you will face stiff penalties.

Still, given the general uncertainty in the pension-fund industry, many people are opting for lump-sum payments. They'd rather manage the money themselves. That may be good practice, since more and more people will be managing more and more facets of their professional lives for the foreseeable future.Bruce Nussbaum in New York, with bureau reports

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