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Career Advancement in Tough Times


Experts say: Focus on helping the company, don't attack rivals, and know the pressures on your boss

The recession we are heading into promises to be brutal and long-lasting. Once the pink slips start piling up—as they surely will—the workplace will become increasingly Darwinian. In times like these, the default setting for many people goes something like this: I'm going to keep my head down, avoid drawing attention, and hope to be standing when the destruction passes.

That's one strategy, for sure. But the hard times can also be an opportunity to advance one's career—or at least show the boss that you are worth hanging onto. Because if there is one thing you can be certain of in this treacherous season, it's that team leaders will be watching everyone a lot more closely than before. Career guru Marcus Buckingham, whose latest book is called The Truth About You, puts it bluntly: "Now bosses get a chance to see who is really good and who isn't."

First, a few don'ts. This is not a moment for sudden moves spurred by panic. "When people feel a lot of anxiety, they either shut down or do things impulsively to reassure themselves that they are doing something," says Ben Dattner, an executive coach who consults to such companies as Credit Suisse (CS), Pfizer (PFE), and Goodyear (GT). "But that can backfire." Under this category: rushing to the boss to tell her that one of her favorites is an incompetent lout.

Another no-no: unseemly ambition. Sure, self-promotion can grate at the best of times. But when the boss is cutting people—and feeling horrible about it—making demands can seem almost sociopathic. A few weeks ago, having just laid off two people from her high-end Manhattan public-relations shop, Jennifer Hawkins gave one of her associates a raise. This person proceeded to ask for even more money. Bad move. "I was like, 'Are you watching TMZ and not CNN? Do you not understand?' " says Hawkins. "Next time, she could be on the block."

TAKE THE INITIATIVE

So what is considered appropriately ambitious behavior in a time of savage retrenchment? Making yourself indispensable. Ashley Howard is a 22-year-old manager at Denver-based FoodServiceWarehouse.com, an online outfit that supplies kitchen equipment to restaurants nationwide. Months ago, the crumbling economy spooked her. Howard wanted to make herself bulletproof. The world was going green; so would she. Howard got her company to pay her tuition to become accredited in sustainable business practices. Guess what her employer's next big initiative is—and who became the go-to employee? Since reinventing herself, Howard has received a big raise and two bonuses.

At a time when it's easy to assume that everyone else is putting his own needs first, candor and self-effacement can be tactical weapons. One executive at a Midwestern industrial products business actually argued a few weeks ago that his job made no sense. That honesty so impressed his boss that the executive was rewarded with a different position—at a higher salary.

While many people lose themselves in the calamity unfolding around them, survivors pull themselves back and calmly survey the landscape for ideas that can help their employer. Sam Brace works for Caliber Group, a Tucson marketing firm. Since the economy started faltering, says his boss, Linda Cohen, Brace has been tireless in his efforts to help his clients get new business in a tough environment. The clients are happy and so is the boss. "When employees can help our clients in these economic times," says Cohen, "their job security increases."

In the coming months, the hard times will afflict a growing number of companies and industries. And a telling tableau of what is to come can already be glimpsed inside the battered citadels of finance. Look no further than the newly merged Bank of America (BAC) and Merrill Lynch (MER).

Since BofA is acquiring Merrill, you might expect the latter's employees to be the most forlorn and passive. Not so, says an executive coach working for the company. The coach says some Merrill staffers are coming up with solutions and getting projects done despite constricting resources. By contrast, this person says, some BofA employees are "the ones who are giving in to despair, sadness, and bitterness, and always grousing." And, the coach adds, the sad sacks could be most likely to get the ax. "People never forget how you come across in extremis. If you can shine at this moment, you'll shine forever."

Conlin is the editor of the Working Life Dept. at BusinessWeek .

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