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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

How You Can Step Up at Work During a Crisis (and Grow Your Career at the Same Time)

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Do you ever wonder what it would be like if your CEO’s name was splashed across news headlines—in a bad way? Or if your company went through a merger or massive layoffs? Or if suddenly your entire organization’s budget was slashed in half?

When your company enters crisis mode, it’s certainly scary—and it can often feel like you only have two options:

  1. Wait it out and suffer the long-term career consequences of being associated with an organization known for its failures
  2. Jump ship and face job uncertainty in the short-term

But a meltdown at your office doesn’t have to mean a career crisis for you. In fact, you can actually learn and gain a lot from a chaotic situation.

I’ve had repeated brushes with corporate turmoil during my career. The first time came in my mid-20s, soon after I moved from New York to Minneapolis for my dream job. My company merged with another, larger one, putting a lot of our jobs at risk. But my boss recognized that disruption meant we had a whole new set of needs, and surprisingly, she nominated me for the transition team.

It was grueling work for sure, but it gave me a seat at the table as the new enterprise took shape. I worked closely with the chief strategist, soaking up on-the-job training and trying to make myself valuable. This experience not only strengthened my resume, but set a long-term course for my career in strategy and facilitation. In the end, my supervisor even rewarded my hard work by creating a position for me at the new company.

And in my work today as a management consultant helping organizations face tough times, one interesting thing I’ve noticed is that it’s not just the boss who can come out of a crisis more polished. I’ve seen how even employees without fancy titles can rise into leadership and find their moment to shine.

Here’s how you can step up to support the business and grow your career when all hope seems lost—even if you’re not the boss (yet).

1. Personify Steadiness and Adaptability

The fact is, during panic moments, leaders don’t always have all the answers. So they scan to find people who can rise to the challenge—and too often they discover few of their employees are ready. (How could they be? Everyone was focused on their day job, not preparing for potential disaster.)

That’s why steady and adaptable people stand out. Your cachet rises as you demonstrate your ability to change rapidly and adjust to new circumstances.

I was in middle management at a growing telecom company when my next corporate crisis hit. One day we were laying fiber optic cable, the next we were bankrupt. On the afternoon of the announcement, I watched one supervisor fold under the uncertainty. He left the building without giving notice, never to return. His employees, however, quickly picked up the slack. Within a few short weeks, they were among an elite group recognized for their steady presence and can-do attitude.

Don’t be one of those people who, when a crisis hits, gets emotional, thinks negatively, or tries to keep doing things the old way, convinced it’ll work out in the end. Rather, take this opportunity to think creatively and be open to altering your approach.

2. Take Initiative

People who get noticed and rewarded during crises don’t wait around to be told what to do. When everything is uncertain, it’s up to you to find ways to contribute to the bottom line and support your colleagues, your customers, and the company—and make things better. Plus, when your boss is swamped with new responsibilities and feeling a little desperate, they’re more likely to take a chance and let you try your hand at new things.

You could take one of the following steps (without overstepping your boundaries, of course):

  • Suggest hosting a brainstorming session with your team to improve output, workflow, or anything else you think could use a refresher. Even if the company as a whole is struggling, your team will still run like a well-oiled machine, and look all the better when trouble eventually passes.
  • Chaos introduces a real threat of loss—be it cash, reputation, workforce, customer loyalty, or some other prized asset. So be creative and find ways to stop the hemorrhaging. Can you form or join a team that monitors metrics for customer satisfaction? Can you help design short-term solutions if there’s a dip in success rates? Can you come up with unique strategies to continue to grow the business with limited resources or support?
  • Form a cross-departmental team to resolve day-to-day snags. Disruption introduces a new set of challenges, and long-lasting solutions will hinge on coordination and communication between departments. If you’re not quite ready to lead a new team yourself, consult with your supervisor before pitching the idea to a leader who has the power to initiate it. Be clear that you want to be involved.

3. Reframe the Crisis as an Opportunity

Even though crises are messy and intense in the moment, the day will come (as it always does) when you look back on all this and realize how important of an opportunity it was for you and your career.

The thing is, you don’t have to wait for hindsight to get here. Be proactive and ask yourself now: What do you want to learn or gain from this?

Then, consider how you can position yourself to achieve it. Think about:

  • How close can you get to the center of the action? Who do you want to learn from? Ask and strive to be on teams or attend meetings where people deal with issues that are most urgent or beyond your scope of knowledge.
  • Resist the temptation to keep your head down during chaos. Instead, build new bridges and surround yourself with individuals who can boost you up in some way or another.
  • What skills will help you move up in your field, either to a more senior-level position or a management role? Does this crisis allow you to build and practice them now?

Reframing the situation isn’t just productive. Crises offer rare opportunities to strengthen your resume, build confidence, and accumulate memorable stories that’ll wow your audience in future job interviews.

4. Let Curiosity (Not Fear) Drive You

It’s normal to worry about how decisions at the top will affect your role—including whether you’ll have a job in the end. You, however, don’t have control over that, so don’t dwell there.

Instead of indulging your private fears and worst-case scenarios, become a curious and relentless observer guided by sincere questions—about how you can help the company and what you can glean along the way. For example:

  • Pay attention to uniquely effective leaders. What are they doing? Can you emulate them?
  • Consider whether today’s turmoil exposes facets of the business that you didn’t understand before. Does this new exposure help you round out valuable or essential business acumen?
  • Look around to see which employees appear indispensable. Can you acquire a technical or interpersonal skill to parallel theirs?

By taking this approach you’ll calm your nerves. Plus, you’ll cultivate a level of confidence and cool-headedness that only a trial by fire can produce.