At a glance
By Engel Schmidl
We’ve all encountered a career setback at one point or another – a redundancy, losing a client, having to downsize our business, being passed over for a promotion or needing to take a career break.
Leah Shmerling, the founder and principal consultant of Melbourne-based Career Coaching and Training, says the key to getting over a career setback is attitude.
“If we handle ourselves well, it will be a positive outcome. But unfortunately, if we don't manage it well, the opposite will happen,” says Shmerling.
Career development expert and former corporate tax accountant, Leah Lambart, agrees and adds that being kind to yourself is important.
“A career setback can rattle your confidence. Surround yourself with positive people and find things outside of work to keep your energy levels up,” says Lambart.
Shmerling and Lambart offer these tips for overcoming a career setback.
1. Control what you can
When faced with a career setback, first ask whether it was due to factors outside your control.
“If it was a nationwide company restructure, then it is unlikely to have anything to do with your performance,” says Lambart.
“If it was due to poor individual performance or poor behaviour, you need to use it as a learning experience and take time out for self-assessment.”
Shmerling agrees: “Think about your life. When do you learn? Never when life is hunky-dory. It's always when there is a setback, so let's take it as a learning experience.”
2. Plan and pivot
We are often too busy working in our jobs to think about working on our careers, but preparing yourself for potential setbacks is part of future-proofing your career, says Lambart.
“Keep your skills up to date, so that you are marketable. Continue networking even when you are not looking for a job. Having an up-to-date resume and LinkedIn profile is a must in today's uncertain climate.”
Shmerling says it is also crucial to understand your skillset and how it relates to your career progress.
Ask yourself, “What skills do I require to get the job, manage a project, to be my highest self? That’s something you have control over, because there are many development opportunities through professional bodies like CPA Australia, tertiary institutions, short courses, etcetera.
“When the next opportunity comes, you're ready to take it."
It’s also helpful to ask whether your role, your company or even your industry is the right fit for you, Lambart says.
“Understanding your personality and the type of work environment that you will thrive in, as opposed to flounder in, is an important first step to finding a ‘best fit’ career and reducing the risk of a career setback down the track.”
3. Shift the focus inward
Comparing yourself to colleagues is a slippery slope, says Lambart, especially when you don’t know the whole story. Instead, run your own race.
“How a career setback affects you will depend on your coping style, stage of life, resilience and preparedness to adapt,” she says.
Shmerling suggests: “Watch your self-talk. Rather than criticism of ourselves, we need to reframe it into a positive learning experience.”
Controlling our inner monologue can help us find motivation to act.
“We gain confidence not by dwelling, but by taking action, because that builds confidence,” she says.
4. Seek impartial advice
Advice from a trusted mentor or career adviser can make a big difference in getting over a career setback.
“With a mentor, we talk about our issues, barriers and difficulties and how this impacts us. We have that platform to do that, and their role is to guide us through this.
“They will assist us in developing our goals, developing contacts and finding the right resources to get us to that next stage,” Shmerling says.
Lambart says that, while self-assessment is helpful, for many people working with a career coach can help find critical insights into your personality, strengths, interests and values much faster.
“This should be the first step in any career change process,” she says.
Shmerling adds that, while it is difficult to invite scrutiny, constructive feedback from trusted sources can make a big difference.
“I say ‘constructive’ and not ‘critical’, because when it’s constructive, it’s given with the intention to learn and grow. This is how we gain insight... What you’re doing is opening your perspective to the way others see you. It takes courage.”
5. Exercise gratitude and look forward
Experiencing setbacks can make us resentful or bitter. Shmerling says negativity can seep into our interactions with others and blind us to potential opportunities.
Lambart agrees and says putting setbacks in context also ensures we don’t define ourselves by them.
“Career setbacks happen to everyone, and sometimes it is just sheer bad luck!” she says.
“I remember a friend of mine being made redundant twice during her first graduate year [from major global brands] due to the business climate. A terrible start to her career, but it built resilience and character, as she then needed to network to find other opportunities outside formal graduate programs.”