Making Lemonade Out of Lemons : When a Layoff Turns Into a Great Career Move

If you’ve ever gotten a pink slip or been told you were being let go, you know it is a horrible feeling.  No matter how “prepared” you think you might be, the news still hits you hard.  There is no easy way to take the news, but there are ways to capitalize on the situation … to make lemonade out of the lemons that were thrown at you.

Patty Marshall* graduated from Darden in May, 2012.  She had successfully landed a well-paying job at a top consulting firm during the student recruiting process.  Although she had lukewarm feelings about her summer internship in consulting, she thought she could make this work … get a couple of years with a brand name firm and then find a job in an industry and function that she could really enjoy.  Much to her surprise, only six months after starting her job, she was called into the boss’ office and told that she was to be a victim of a massive corporate wide reduction in force.  She had not seen it coming and was stunned.  That was March 7, 2013.

Rather than wallow in her sorrow, Patty reached out to people she thought could help her process what had just happened.  Darden Alumni Career Services was among one of her first calls.  She reflected on her last six months and realized that, despite the solid salary, she did not enjoy the day-to-day work of professional advisory services.  It was too far from the product, and she knew she wanted to be “part of a company” rather than an advisor.  While she enjoyed the high-level strategic analysis she missed being part of the execution. Rather than take the easy bait of jumping to another consulting firm, she decided to use this as an opportunity to make a career shift – one that capitalized on her interests in organizational development and people strategy.  Developing a focused objective helped her make the best out of the conversations she started to have with people in her network.  Rather than shun her colleagues at the consulting firm she reached out for their help.  (After all, who has better connections than partners at a consulting firm?) Those conversations quickly put her into contact with people in companies that fit her search.  Her last day at the consulting firm was April 19th and she was already in the final rounds of the interview process at three different companies!

What can we learn from Patty’s layoff?  First of all, realize that being laid off means that the organization is going through some difficult times and/or you are not being fully appreciated and are probably in a poorly fitting job.  So, the idea of being forced to leave a bad situation is not such a bad thing.  Being forced out also forces you to reflect on what kind of organization you want to work in and what kind of role would allow you to leverage your strengths and follow your passion.

If you are let go, you will most definitely have a feeling of loss and may experience anger and disbelief.  Thus, you’ll need time to process what has happened and rationally plan how to proceed.  Be careful not to pounce on your network the week you get laid off – chances are you’ll be putting off some negative vibes.  Instead, use that initial week to decompress, reflect and plan. This down time can prepare you to present yourself better to your network.  But, don’t wait too long as you do want to capitalize on your supporters at the firm you are leaving – they will probably welcome the opportunity to help you as it will help them feel better about the awkward situation.

It is important to stay positive —and this is easier said than done.  Enroll your close allies and Alumni Career Services to be your cheerleaders; they’ll also need to let you know if you are being sour.  Remind yourself that this is an opportunity to find a better situation – a stronger company, a closer fit, a fresh start.  Set out to work as hard on your search as you would in a paying job.  Employ discipline and scheduling into your routine.  Be focused and diligent with a clear objective in mind.

Patty accepted the role of Director of Global Workforce Analytics at a large consumer products company on May 7th, exactly two months from the day she was told she would be let go from her consulting firm.  The new job has all of the elements of the “dream role” she was looking for — it is a high-level strategic position where she is helping build out and up-skill a function, and has the right mix of strategy and execution.  This successful search is just one example of how a layoff can be a good thing in one’s career.

This summer, when I delight in the sweet refreshing taste of a cold glass of lemonade, I’ll be reminded of how Patty made lemonade out of the lemons she was handed.

* not her real name

Connie Dato English MBA’91, Director of the Armstrong Center for Alumni Career Services at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business.

For more information on what to do when you lose your job, see the Job Loss section on the ACS website.

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