The frightening career vulnerability of professionals

It doesn’t matter how hard we work, how much money we earn or how much value we provide to our employer; if we are employed, we are vulnerable. Our job security is completely dependent on the financial fortunes of our employers and sectors. And this means our livelihoods are as vulnerable as a share price is to a crash. Try asking anyone at Volkswagen how secure they feel their job is today compared to just a few months ago…

When our whole lives hang on this fragile thread, we need a career hedging strategy

The global jobs crisis makes no distinction between young and old, rich and poor. In that sense it’s perhaps the most egalitarian crisis we've ever seen. But that’s cold comfort, I know. The huge irony is that it can punish even those who deliver great results for their employers.

This post is the first of four in which I will share with you the story of someone who has faced this crisis, endured an epic struggle to defeat it, and won. And perhaps more importantly how they won.

This is the true story of someone from the financial sector. Not a fat cat, embezzler or fraudster, but a normal professional guy, who like hundreds of thousands of others, worked hard for years to climb his own career ladder. A person whom many would imagine as unlikely to ever have a career crisis. Yet not only did he have one, it was not of his own making, and on the face of it, it was terminal.

Meet my friend Chad Blakeman

Thanks to this blog, I encounter and often become friends with many people all over the world who share with me in great detail their own stories of career collapse and their journeys to resurrection. Every single one is unique and fascinating. But there is one common theme; few expected disaster to strike them and even fewer expected the road back to be so hard or demanding.

Chad Blakeman

After graduating, Chad Blakeman pursued a successful career in the financial sector. By 1997, he’d reached the position of Senior VP at GE Capital, one of the world’s largest and most successful financial firms. After 7 years he left GE in 2004 to become Senior Managing Director of Freeport Capital, a specialist business finance firm. Four years later, he became the Managing Partner of CastleGuard Partners, the successor to Freeport Capital. Leaving CastleGuard in 2010, he became Managing Director of Fifth Street Management. That post ended up being just a year and he spent the next year as Head of Strategic Initiatives at Golub Capital. In 2012, he left Golub to spend the next two and a half years as a Senior VP at Vista Equity Partners.

Do you see a pattern here?

Since leaving GE in 2004, and as the full impacts of the financial crisis worked through the system, Chad’s jobs became shorter in tenure; in fact two of the last three jobs he held lasted for just a year. Nonetheless, he had a solid career history and record of accomplishment which meant he was rarely out of work for long.

Chad is a relatively humble Midwesterner with conservative values and pragmatic views. He uses logic and reasoning to make decisions, rarely relying on emotion. He’s calm and affable, and absolutely nothing like Gordon Gecko or Jordan Belfort. He’s a professional who has a clear understanding of business ethics and behaves accordingly.

How doing great work is no guarantee of job security anymore

To his colleagues, friends and family, Chad was a success, who on the face of it could weather any storm. He had come through the financial collapse of 2008-9 with his career intact. Many others in the sector found themselves on the scrapheap. This is where things become ironic. Thanks to his direction, the funds he managed were low risk, secure and delivering good investor returns. Yet Chad’s personal position was far from secure due to reasons entirely outside his control. I’ll let him take over the story here:

The asset manager (the parent company of our fund) was a hedge fund. During the recession, the hedge fund was under pressure. Investors wanted their money back as every investor wanted liquidity and not investments. Our fund was different, we were conservatively invested and our investors were ok with us continuing to manage their money. The hedge fund wasn’t performing anywhere close to this and was rapidly losing investor support. Losing this investor support and downsized investments meant fee income was shrinking. Given this, the hedge fund saw our fund as being very solid and did what hedge funds do, they took advantage of the situation.

The hedge fund took over the finance company and ran it to maximize their fee income whilst winding down the finance company – 4 years, making $30m per year until it was done. I remember the day well as my team was, one by one, let go and I was the last.

This is the harsh reality of career success. Even when we deliver everything our employers seek and more, we can still become victims of corporate decisions totally outside our control.

From hero to zero in an instant

So by July 2015, Chad’s success had not saved him from redundancy and he joined the hundreds of thousands of other career casualties from the financial sector.

His industry was shrinking; there were hundreds of thousands of ex-financial employees chasing a massively reduced number of jobs. Worse, his core skills of risk assessing and underwriting loans were skills no-one wanted anymore. What was left of this activity was becoming more and more automated and the few jobs left could be done by relatively junior and low skilled staff.

His skills and accomplishments had a dwindling market value in these conditions. In many ways, he was absolutely no different to those from other sectors who find that their industry has disappeared and their skills are not wanted or needed by anyone else.

Despite his track record and skills, this time round Chad sensed the situation was different. And he was right. The massive numbers of financial sector lay-offs and the caution of firms about hiring senior people meant that suitable jobs for him were so scarce he wondered if he’d ever find work again.

This realization caused him more than sleepless nights. At one point he visited his doctor. The doctor asked if he had a gun in his house...

What does this teach us?

I discussed with Chad what he felt now with the benefit of hindsight were his mistakes. This is what we concluded: 

  • It’s a mistake to assume that delivering on our personal objectives for an employer makes us less vulnerable to redundancy. 
  • Focusing our efforts solely on what our employers want us to do, makes us more not less vulnerable if and when disaster strikes 
  • The more evolved our skills become in the narrow field of specialism that our employers seek, the less valuable we become in the marketplace. 

We simply cannot expect that redundancy can be resolved as quickly as we need. The hard reality is that we have to be planning for our next job well before we lose our current one. And since as Chad’s experience shows, job tenures are getting ever shorter, this means the time we must start preparing for our next job, is the week we start our current one.

But this is just the start of the story. In the next post, we’ll look at how Chad successfully overcame these obstacles to get out of the doldrums and back in the game.  Just follow this link to part two.