Ten ways to stay focused in a troubled company

There’s no denying that work is much easier when your organisation is flying high or your sector is booming. But working for a troubled company or in a dying industry needn’t be all bad. The challenge is recognising the opportunities within, while keeping an eye on the exit. Here are ten tips on how to stay motivated and focused if you find yourself working in a struggling business or industry.

1. Be alert to problems. Keep an eye on what is happening, both in your business and your industry. Stay abreast of news and gossip, and be on the lookout for danger signs. There’s an assumption that technological change destroys industries, and this is sometimes true. But changes in the law, economics and even public tastes can be just as devastating. Aim to be the kind of person who sees what is around the next corner.

2. Don’t feel guilty. When a business is struggling – for whatever reasons – people often feel that to leave would be disloyal. Instead, they work harder, often to little or no avail, rather than looking after their own career. But you need to be realistic. Even if it’s a company or industry you love, being in denial about what is happening won’t help anyone in the long run.

3. Don’t focus purely on the negatives. Try to find some perspective. Look for the things that are good about your organisation and the places where you can make a difference. Adversity can often forge very strong team morale as it provides a common goal. Remember, agile companies in troubled sectors can often adapt and reinvent themselves, presenting new opportunities. If good times return, those who stay the course may be rewarded handsomely.

4. Look for opportunities within the company. Surprisingly, struggling organisations often offer a huge breadth of opportunities. Promotion can come very rapidly as senior people may leave and the firm could have trouble recruiting, or decide not to replace them. You may be asked to take on responsibilities that you’d have to wait years for in a better-resourced business.

5. Try to take a long-term view. When times are difficult, people often fall into a fire-fighting mode where they behave reactively and never think beyond the next problem. Instead, you need to ensure you make time for long-term strategy. It is long-term thinking, not short-term fixes, that will return your organisation to good health. Don’t let the “urgent” be the enemy of the “important”.

6. Think about those you manage. Be honest with your team about what is happening, but make an effort to ensure that their hard work is recognised. Even if you can’t do this financially, creating a culture of recognition and praise will do much to keep them engaged when times are tough. Bear in mind, too, how your own behaviour looks. The signals you send out will have a big influence on how your team behaves.

7. Think about your own accomplishments. Keep a log of your successes, ensure your efforts are recognised, and document where you have boosted company performance. Whether you stay with the business or go elsewhere, this will provide you with a record to prove that you’ve been part of the solution, not part of the problem.

8. Keep an eye on the exit. Ensure that you network, that you are aware of opportunities and that you’re in touch with head-hunters. But equally, you still have a job, so you don’t need to jump at the first opportunity. Think, too, about the skills you have that are transferable. If you lack certain skills and need training in some areas, now may be the time to remedy this.

9. Think about where you might go. If your organisation is struggling, then the obvious place to look for new openings is with other companies in the sector. If it’s your sector where the problem lies, then remember that when industries die, it’s usually because others are taking their place – and this is where the opportunities will be. You might also ask yourself if your industry is dying where you are, but thriving elsewhere in the world. And it’s worth bearing in mind that even in dying industries, there can be opportunities. If your country shuts down its nuclear power stations, there’ll be nuclear decommissioning work for decades to come, for instance. Finally, if you want to try something different, this is your chance.

10. Stress the positives in interviews. If you are being interviewed for a position, emphasise that you have experience with difficult times and can handle yourself when the sailing is less than smooth. Point to your resilience and the challenges you’ve overcome, and try to distance yourself from any problems. Resist the urge to criticise your current employer or moan: You don’t want to come across as bitter, jaded or cynical. It’s fine to say times were tough, but be upbeat and focus on what you’ve learned.

Rhymer Rigby is author of The Careerist: Over 100 Ways to Get Ahead at Work.