Playing defense with your career only takes you so far…

By Scot Herrick | Cube Rules Commentary

Feb 02

When you are in the middle of a recession, everyone cuts back. This, ironically, makes the situation worse. As people spend less, less is produced, causing more layoffs and even less spending. This spiral, by the way, is the reason government spending steps in to stop the downward spiral.

We cut back in our jobs and career as well — we play defense. We watch the news, watch our company’s performance, judge our department’s work and are way-to-often happy to just have a job. We follow stupid career advice — look busy when there is nothing to do — and kill ourselves by following more stupid career advice — go in earlier and stay later so we work longer hours, including eating lunch at our desks so we are “visible.”

All of which avoids the real deal: deliver results. I don’t know why career pundits think beating around the bush with “visibility” and “hours worked” somehow trump producing good work with your performance. But I digress.

Playing defense has its own set of costs to the company and to your career. A former CEO of mine famously noted in the last recession that a company won’t have anything left if it cuts costs forever to make a profit; at some point companies need to figure out how to serve customers better so that revenue increases.

In our careers, there is a point where it no longer feels right to play defense. We’ve cut back so much that we no longer learn new skills. We do anything our management team asks us to do to the point where we are no longer doing anything that resembles the work we want to do. Or doing work that we are not very good at doing (increasing your chances of not delivering quality work despite “looking busy” and “working more hours” and therefore getting on the list to be laid off…).

We take punch after punch from management that can’t figure out how to run the business without laying another 10,000 people off until there isn’t much employee engagement left for the business or for ourselves.

Our attitude hits the skids to the point where we just end up doing what we are told to do at work because nothing much else makes sense fighting for in our work. Bunker mentality reigns supreme.

This is a dangerous point for your career.

There comes a time where each of us need to determine that we are going to live our lives and face the fear that if we lose our job, we are good enough to find another. That we will not put off making commitments, financial or otherwise, because we are told by management who freezes our salaries and cuts our benefits while keeping theirs that we should feel fortunate to even have a job.

Instead of wandering amongst the hundreds of empty cubicles in fear of losing our job, we change our attitude so that we look for opportunities in the face of fear. The opportunities won’t all work out, but this time our attitude now says that if this one doesn’t work out, we will learn from the experience and the next opportunity will be the right one for us now.

In short, we start to play offense. Defense is good to play for a while, but one doesn’t score much playing defense. Playing defense all the time wears you down, tires you out and you start to make career mistakes.

So start playing some offense. Resolve to change your attitude to face the fears of this ugly economy and start looking for opportunities.

This past week, Kate and I debated replacing a paid for, but very old SUV, with a new car. We are debt-free, have a years take-home pay in the bank (yes, I follow my own advice here on Cube Rules…), doing fine, but both of us are concerned about whether or not we will have a job six months from now. As are many people all across the planet. Can we make the payments, what happens if something breaks on the old SUV, what happens if we lose a job in this economy?

And somewhere along the line late last week, we both decided that we needed to live our life as our life and not live it relative to what some corporation might do to our jobs because they can’t figure out how to manage a company. We have enough faith in our skills and abilities to know that we would be great assets to any hiring manager and have results to prove it.

It’s not that we are suddenly unconcerned about all of those defensive plays. But we’ve been letting the defensive plays run our life and cause us to doubt the faith in our own skills, abilities, and performance when we work.

We came to realize we need to play offense. We need to run our life according to our needs and have faith in our abilities, just as we always did before the churn of the last year and a half. And for the next year and a half while the world works through an ugly recession. We have faith that we will do fine no matter what may happen in the unknown future.

We bought the new car this past weekend.

How much faith have you lost in yourself because you’ve been playing career defense?

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About the Author

Scot Herrick is the author of “I’ve Landed My Dream Job–Now What???” and owner of Cube Rules, LLC. Scot has a long history of management and individual contribution in multiple Fortune 100 corporations.

  • Great advice, Scot. It’s hard to stay calm in the midst of the axe-capades at so many corporations these days, especially as your own workload increases. I think one of the greatest offense strategies is to develop one’s own sideline income, if possible. In the event of a layoff, there’s plenty of contract work to be had these days while you tackle the job search. So spend time developing your whole self, even outside the bounds of your company walls.

    • Scot says:

      This is one of the reasons I’m not a big advocate of “longer hours” but, instead, real results in the time we work. We work the longer hours for the corporation, but will get laid off anyway. In the meantime, we ruin our personal lives. Good comment, Hayli, thanks for taking the time to write it.

  • Dan Erwin says:

    Playing career offense is a smart recommendation. One caveat: I make playing career offense the modus operandi throughout my entire life and recommend it to al my clients and colleagues. Sure, take care of your current work responsibilities. But a significant piece of life in the new economy is watching, look, thinking, and working beyond your current job–and corporation.

    The old work contract is dead and gone–has been for years. What this recession says is that its “really gone.” The best recommendation is to think strategically about your work, your career, and your life. Then keep adding the competencies that make you not only employable, but give you a significant level of confidence about your career and your life.

    Knowing that this is so important to professionals today, I put together a (free) white paper on career strategy. Here’s the address: http://danerwin.com/white_papers/pdf/how_do_you_think_strategically_about_your_career.pdf

    Dan Erwin, PhD http://www.danerwin.com

    • Scot says:

      Good comment, Dan. I think there are some times to play defense, but what happens is we start watching all the defensive stuff and all of a sudden we’re not thinking strategically about our career any more. It is an easy trap to fall into.

  • Kevin says:

    . Sometimes, people just fail to get results, part of it is just laziness. Realistically, people are competing to get the same contract/job/deal and only 1 will get it. In order to get results, one usually has to put in the extra hours to finish it. The longer hours and results are actually correlated.

  • Scot says:

    @Kevin I get that people are competing for the same contract or job and only one will get it. But that has nothing to do with getting results. I get that people fail to get results and some of it is laziness. That means you won’t be as strong in trying to get a different position compared to someone who does get results.

    I don’t believe people need to work extraordinary hours to get results. The hours and results are not correlated at all. Most studies show people waste a great amount of their day; merely working the business hours often produces spectacular results.

    Most of the poor career advice simply says to work longer hours. The advice never says “produce results” no matter how many hours it takes you to achieve them. That’s why “work more hours” is poor advice.

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