Careers must be resilient enough to withstand a few knocks

Dear Joan:
Today is day eight since my firm announced that is was dissolving. I awoke this morning with lead in my stomach and anxiety permeating my nervous system. I had just finished a dream that I was working as a gasoline attendant and the cars were driving off without paying because there were too many of them for me to help. Scanning the business section this morning looking for leads, I ran across your article "What it Takes to Be a Success." The article made me recall other setbacks I had experienced over the last several years and my focus and determination began to return.

When I went to law school, I was going through a tumultuous divorce, with two pre-school children, worked full-time and attended school full-time. I had no outside support group. Somehow I got through and even managed to graduate with honors. I then went to work for a prestigious firm. Unfortunately, after five years, it closed its Florida office and I was forced to seek employment elsewhere. As the breadwinner of my family, this caused great stress. I finally found my present position and everything was wonderful until the partners decided to split. After reading your article, I am trying to recall all of the resources I depended on to get me through those periods. I just wanted to say thank you.

Is there any doubt, for anyone reading this, that she will succeed? I have long been fascinated with the differences between the people who are able to overcome setbacks and those who cave in and give up. That curiosity is more than academic these days, now that huge changes are rocking the workplace and nobody's career is safe and secure.

I call it career resilience. If you could touch it, it would be made from a pliable, bendable and stretchable material that would be tough enough to withstand the heat and turbulence brought on by changes in the career journey. What is success? What is failure? Both concepts are being redefined.

Career failure is actually coming into it's own. The May 1995 issue of "Fortune" devotes it's cover story to executives who have failed and bounced back. In fact, they even tout a serious setback--and how it's dealt with--as a prerequisite for top leadership positions. Microsoft's Bill Gates says, "The way people deal with things that go wrong is an indicator of how they deal with change." Bingo.

How about you? Have you had a serious setback? Made a doosy of a mistake? Gotten the boot? Here are some tips to build your career resilience:

·        Define yourself by things other than your job. Sometimes it takes getting fired before we realize that our job isn't who we are. The healthy among us have known all along that balance in our lives not only creates less stress, it also makes us better employees with greater perspective. Could you bounce back after a setback with your self-esteem intact?

·        Determine your sense of purpose. If you define yourself in terms of your goal, you might feel empty if the goal is met, or worse, never achieved. For example, a purpose such as "I want to make a difference" will guide you no matter what job you do. "I want to be CEO of this company (or die trying)," could set you up for a miserable fall.

·        Ignore the concept of failure. View it as a false start, mistake or distraction, not a personal failure.

·        Get back on the horse. After a serious mistake or setback the temptation is to crawl in a hole and hide rather than finding the courage to get back on the horse and ride it. If that horse is already out of the barn, then find another challenge to ride.

·        Forget being perfect. Recently, a colleague of mine committed suicide over a job situation. She boxed herself into a corner and panicked because she was afraid she'd fail. She had spent her entire life being "perfect" and she was to too brittle to bend with a challenging situation. Her `all or nothing' thinking limited her options and her ability to deal with it rationally.

Since that time, I have seen and heard other high achievers speak with panic in their voices about problems they can't fix; situations frighteningly similar to that of my colleague. Sometimes being "perfect" still isn't going to be enough. Ask yourself, "Did I do everything I thought was right at the time?" If so, let go... and give yourself the same break you'd give your best friend.

·        Focus on what you can control. If the company closes or downsizes you're not to blame. Too often, we beat ourselves up over things that we had no hand in. Talk to others who can help you regain perspective and redirect your focus. What steps can you can take to move forward with your own life?

·        Use your "failure" to liberate you. In the book, Repacking Your Bags-Lighten Your Load For the Rest of Your Life, by Leider and Shapiro, they suggest having a mid-life crisis on purpose. They suggest that we ask these sometimes frightening, always liberating questions before there's a crisis: "What do I want?" "What do I feel?" "What must I do now to feel right with myself?" What are my dreams for myself and what fears have blocked me?"

Like the sturdy tree that has grown thick and strong by bending in high winds, your career-and character- can be strengthened if you face a few storms of your own.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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