By: Maurice Gilbert, Managing Partner of Conselium Executive Search
If there’s one thing investors have learned from our recent economic problems, it’s the benefits of diversification. Even though everybody’s taking a bath these days, those investors whose money was spread among various types of investments probably took fewer losses than those whose money sat entirely in mortgage-backed securities or, worse, Bernie Madoff’s bank account.
The same lesson should be learned when it comes to professional skills: the more diversified your skills are, the more adaptable they are to changing conditions, the better off you’ll be when times are hard.
After all, uncertainty is a given. Even when times are good, security is an illusion.
But getting comfortable with uncertainty can be difficult, particularly for those of us who grew up expecting to work at the same company for 35 years until we retired and watched our children do the same thing. As anyone who’s received even a single pink slip knows, those days are long gone.
As Eckhart Tolle observed in A New Earth, “When you become comfortable with uncertainty, infinite possibilities open up in your life… If uncertainty is unacceptable to you, it turns into fear. If it is acceptable, it turns into increased aliveness, alertness and creativity.”
Adaptability is key to survival, both in nature and in the marketplace. Companies like Goldman Sachs, one of the few Wall Street firms still surviving as an independent company, prove the point.
“They change to fit their environment,” banking analyst Michael Mayo told the New York Times. “When it was good to go public, they went public. When it was good to get big in fixed income, they got big in fixed income… Now that it’s good to be a bank, they became a bank.”
Professionals like T. Boone Pickens and Steve Jobs also show the benefits of adaptability. Once the oilman’s oilman, Pickens has now become an evangelist for wind power. As for Jobs, after a strong start in the late 1970s, his career stalled. But he came back and went on to establish Pixar, the landmark animation studio, and is responsible for the now ubiquitous iPhone.
So how can you ensure your own adaptability in the face of uncertainty? Here are some tips:
• Stay informed. Keep abreast of the news and get your information from a variety of sources. Don’t rely on just one television network, website or newspaper. And don’t stop at business news. Developments in local, state and national politics, technology and even entertainment can round out your knowledge base.
• Never stop learning. If your workplace subsidizes continued education, take them up on it. Look at professional continuing education requirements as opportunities to expand your skills, not as an obligation. And don’t limit yourself to professional education opportunities, either. Merely learning a new skill—whether it’s archery, knitting or a new language—keeps your mind sharp and your senses honed.
• Take well thought-out risks. Don’t let fear stop you from taking a risk, whether it’s starting a business, taking a new position or moving cross country. But do your homework first. No change is going to be problem-free, but anticipating and preparing for obstacles can help you overcome them without losing your stride.
• Learn from your mistakes. If you’re not making any mistakes, you’re not trying anything new, so don’t be afraid to make a mistake here and there. But be sure you learn from them and adjust your plan accordingly.
• Broaden your network. Don’t just look to your professional colleagues and acquaintances from your trade association. Network with your neighbors, the other parents at your child’s school or soccer league, your place of worship, any group where people know and trust you. Make sure that those around you know what you do for a living.
• Shore up skills you’re deficient in. If your computer skills are iffy, you can’t type, you’re terrified of public speaking—or whatever you aren’t good at but should be—make it your goal to improve in those areas. It may not be a deal-breaker in your current job, but it could be the ticket to your next one.
• When faced with an obstacle, ask “where is the opportunity?” Sometimes, the biggest breakthroughs are unintended consequences of problems. In the mid-1970s, a scientist named Art Fry was merely looking for a bookmark that wouldn’t fall out of his book, but wouldn’t stick so much as to ruin the pages. The answer became what we now know as Post-It Notes. What opportunities are hidden behind the obstacles you face?
• Think like an entrepreneur, even if you aren’t one. Entrepreneurs literally own their success, and so should you. Even if you don’t own the company you work for, you are the CEO of your career, so take ownership of it.
• Find a mentor who has rebounded from tough times. Chances are, there’s one in your community, but if there isn’t, your local bookstore or library can offer lots of options. Just about every successful business person, athlete, politician or entertainer has had to overcome adversity to get where they are today.
• Creativity is key in tough times. Don’t let “because we’ve always done it this way” be the answer. Brainstorm with colleagues. Take a walk to clear your head. Think of new solutions to old problems. Creative problem solving is always a selling point.
• Deal with stress. Yes, times are hard, and the stress of a lost job, debt or a crushing workload can turn even the sunniest optimist into a joyless ogre. But there has never been a more important time to take care of your own health, which is, after all, your most important asset. Take time to exercise, relax, connect with friends and family and, in general, care for your physical, emotional and spiritual self.
The only constant in this universe is change, and the better prepared you are to deal with that change, the more likely you are to survive and thrive, in good times and bad.
“We cannot live without change. The race for survival in this world is not to the strongest, but to the most adaptive.”
–Yun Jong-yong, Samsung Chairman
Maurice Gilbert is Managing Partner of Conselium Executive Search, which specializes in placing Compliance Officers and Legal Counsel for clients in the U.S., Europe, Latin America and Asia Pacific. Maurice is also CEO of Corporate Compliance Insights, a worldwide publication devoted to governance, risk and compliance issues. Maurice can be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.