Survive and Thrive

Highly skilled quality pros can make it through hard times

by Hank Lindborg

No sector is immune. Manufacturing, IT, finance, healthcare, education, publishing and retail are being affected by economic conditions that range from slowdown to slow-motion collapse.

For many, a job search is no longer an optional step in career development—it’s a matter of immediate economic survival. Others await the next piece of bad news that may put them on the street. Given such serious risk, how should we behave? How should we develop strategies for our jobs and careers?

Driver safety analogy

To illustrate, let’s use what we learned in driving school. Why? Because of all daily activities, driving is the riskiest. We may fear snakes, spiders, bird flu and public speaking, but they don’t kill many of us. According to the Smith System, there are five keys to success in driving.1 The five keys also apply to careers.

The Smith System’s first key to success is to aim high in steering. Understand, evaluate and act on all of the information you have. Under threat, people respond to immediate circumstances, rely on previously learned behavior and may limit channels of information—especially as they see distress everywhere.

The most important information you need, however, is about yourself in relation to your environment, market and technology. What do you bring to work? What are your skills, orientation and experience? How are these relevant to emerging fields and to the training and education required by them? Green technology, power engineering and managing supply chain risk may call you, but are you ready?

The second key is get the big picture. Quality professionals have long advocated systems thinking in organizations, employing disciplined techniques to keep from jumping to solutions before seeing the whole. What is the big picture for the industry in which you work? What political, economic, social and technical trends are affecting it? Are these likely to persist? For how long? From a larger, strategic (not just company and job) perspective, what is the likely future? Think like a CEO but without too much management jargon.

Misleading statistics

Third, keep your eyes moving to scan changes in the environment. For those who remain employed in times of uncertainty, scanning may itself become a difficult challenge.

The same holds true for those seeking work or surviving at new jobs—often at lower pay, with fewer benefits and diminished professional identity. Some, confronted by unremitting bad news, stop seeking full-time employment altogether, perhaps cobbling together part-time jobs, to fall among those no longer even counted in government statistics.

This situation isn’t new to those who were buffeted by economic churn while Wall Street bonuses and corporate profits rose along with house prices and the size of SUVs.2 It is new to those in arenas such as state and local government, finance, and industries—including IT, which in spite of outsourcing had been regaining competitive advantage through lean practices and innovation.

In spite of massive economic setbacks, there is hope. A new book reviews global trends to forecast a new environment in which highly skilled quality professionals can thrive.3

The author makes no guarantees but provides the kinds of trend data—beyond daily headlines—and integral perspectives you need for your own big-picture scan for opportunities.

The fourth key is to always leave yourself an out. In driving, this means using space to stay out of harm’s way. In careers, it applies to professional development and contingency planning. What is the scope of your career? Is it bounded by a single function or job? If so, you have little space to maneuver. What new projects, training or education will allow you greater latitude? What plans have you made for a possible move—voluntary or involuntary?

Remember, those who have noticed where outs (exits) are and have mentally rehearsed using them have the best chances for surviving a crash of any kind.

Finally, the fifth key—make sure they see you. If you want to remain among the core employees in your organization, your value has to be apparent to your boss and coworkers—not only in the tangible results of your projects, but also in your role as supportive colleague. Their opinions count when it comes to references, networking and even new job offers. If you are planning a change to consulting or contracting, perhaps taking on your newly outsourced job, or if you are actively conducting a job search, you need to be visible.

Active participation in ASQ is another means to remain visible and to maintain professional identity by holding office, gaining certifications, speaking, writing for its publications and developing a supportive network. 


  1. Smith System, www.smith-system.com.
  2. Louis Uchitelle, The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences, Vintage, 2006. 
  3. Edward E. Gordon, Winning the Global Talent Showdown: How Businesses and Communities Can Partner to Rebuild the Jobs Pipeline, Berrett-Koehler, 2009.

Henry J. Lindborg is executive director and CEO of the National Institute for Quality Improvement, which provides consulting in strategic planning, organizational development and assessment. He holds a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and teaches in a leadership and quality graduate program. Lindborg is past chair of ASQ’s Education Division and of the Education and Training Board.

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