Why You (Too) Need a Plan B

Reid Hoffman

Reid Hoffman - Image via Wikipedia

It would be great if everything we tried in our careers worked out the way we planned.

Sometimes it happens.

And sometimes it doesn’t.

In both cases, you – and me too – need a Plan B.

I know; I’m at one of those inflexion points in my practice where either things change over the next few months or my Plan B kicks in.

In my world, where I have two sides to my coaching consulting practice – one side exec, career and new hire coaching, the other side startup team and leadership team coaching – both sides hitting at the same time keeps me busy and pretty happy. With just one side of my practice going I can bump along; two sides busy and my practice reads “thrive” rather than “survive.”

What’s true in the work I do is true in yours; you can do great work (my client reviews have been great, repeat business has been strong) but timing and demand can be almost everything. Industry consolidations, acquisitions and loss of executive sponsors, deep recessions, fluctuating skill demands, and technological change all cause turning points with careers, taking you from the fast track to the relative track pits as quickly as you can say “changed demand.”

The two plus strong first years as I had with the consulting practice I launched in 2006 can look different when a deep recession hits in 2009. But with those changes come opportunity as well; undervalued skills and experiences can be become prized just as abilities that were highly sought suddenly become not-so-hot. It helps, though, to figure out where to practice your craft with those prized skills.

The New York Time’s Thomas Friedman quotes the advice of LinkedIn Chairman Reid Hoffman from Hoffman’s upcoming book The Start-up of You. Hoffman asserts the following; “No career is a sure thing anymore. The uncertain, rapidly changing conditions in which entrepreneurs start companies is what it’s now like for all of us fashioning a career. Therefore you should approach career strategy the same way an entrepreneur approaches starting a business.”

Hoffman – no slouch at perseverance, nimbleness, and getting his hands dirty – goes on to note “Entrepreneurs don’t write a 100-page business plan and execute it one time; they’re always experimenting and adapting based on what they learn.

Even Dr. Seuss offers the similar advice. “Step with care and great tact and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act. Just never forget to be dextrous and deft. And never mix up your right foot with your left.

To be nimble it helps to quickly figure out what’s working and what’s not; if it’s timing, work quality, market, or something else. But in any case, if it’s not working, think Plan B and get ready to make the adjustment once you’ve got enough data.

In the early 1990’s I spent time with folks with Federal Express at their Memphis mega-hub courtesy of the deep relationship FedEx had with McKesson, where my last role was as a Senior VP of Human Resources. FedEx’s headquarters had a number of large satellite dishes arrayed on the grounds, a legacy of the company’s earlier initiative (pre-small cheap fax machines and certainly pre-Internet) to fax a document from one hub to another and have the paper document delivered to the customer by FedEx’s fleet of trucks.

Great idea by FedEx; horrendous timing. Technology shifts in the form of inexpensive fax machines rendered the project irrelevant. FedEx, though, implemented a Plan B for the satellite communications system, which was to deploy live daily update status videos to every terminal in their network. It wasn’t their first choice. But their Plan B was a great way to repurpose the assets they had.

While my Plan B may or may not happen – in my case likely heading up HR for a small to midsize firm, or runing talent acquisition or learning and development functions for a larger firm – I’ll do what I recommend to clients and that’s to vet things with family, friends and colleagues over the next few months. Pick people’s brains as it were. What’s the course I should take? Is Plan B a better option now than maintaining the consulting practice? Should I move to Plan B and think about moving back (the old Plan A becomes the new Plan B) at a later date? Or should I keep moving forward knowing the strong work I’ve done should lead to added business sooner not later?

Reid Hoffman’s advice, as my own experience suggests, is that you’re always inventing and reinventing yourself. Having a Plan B (or even a Plan C or D) handy is not a sign of wishy-washiness or indecision; it’s a sign that you understand that the realities of dynamic change effect everyone. And Carol Dweck would chime in; her research shows that it’s perseverance and trying difference strategies that is the hallmark of people who are successful over any extended period of time.

And Hoffman agrees; strengthen those muscles of resilience he suggests. He notes that while we all saw music service Pandora’s successful IPO, we don’t recall that the founder pitched the idea to 300 venture capitalists without a bite.

So while you working your hard on your Plan A, be thinking about a Plan B.

It’s important for you. And important for me.

 

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

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