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The economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has affected nearly everyone on at least some level, and the implications for the global workforce are enormous. In fact, the United Nations’ International Labour Organization estimated in late May that in the second quarter of 2020, working hours globally would decline by 10.7 percent—equivalent to 305 million full-time jobs—compared with the last quarter of 2019.

It’s a staggering figure to comprehend, even for those who remember the harsh realities of the Great Recession. But in this moment, just as in the depths of the of 2008–09 financial crisis, Booth alumni are not alone.

Throughout the Booth alumni community, fellow graduates who have walked difficult paths of their own have advice and personal perspectives to share—learnings that can help calm fears and open doors toward new ways of thinking and new opportunities when the glass appears half empty.

We had a unique opportunity to speak with three of them: Chicago Booth’s own career coaches Anita Brick, ’81, director of career advancement programs, and Meenakshi Dash, ’08, associate director of career management; as well as Eric Mboma, ’08, a group executive director of the Nairobi-based African Guarantee Fund, who recently spoke to current students during a webinar series on career resilience.

They provide insight into what affected Booth alumni can do to help not only themselves but others amid this crisis, and distinguish themselves in the job market. “It’s super important to know who you are and the value you bring,” Brick said, “but then really figure out where you can add value.”

Can you share an experience when you had to navigate a difficult time in your career? What happened and what helped you through it?

Brick: It came from an unlikely place. It didn’t result from a reorg, economic crisis, or a not-so-great relationship with my manager. It occurred when I was crushed and nearly severed in half by an elevator. I was literally out of the market for multiple years while I recovered from serious physical injuries and emotional trauma. I waged a significant battle to regain my confidence, courage, and sense of self-worth. Three things really helped me: my family and friends, my faith, and Booth.

From the Booth side was the alumni community, where I was valued and encouraged to engage. I was invited to write a short series on careers—which later ran in the career section of the Wall Street Journal—and give a speech. While I was really scared, the support of fellow alumni in the audience boosted my spirit and the positive evaluations reminded me of my value as a professional.

Mboma: In 2017 I abided by the unsolicited decision of the president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, appointing me as president of the national insurance regulatory board. Even though I never raised my hand for that high-profile role, and even though I was aware of how my personal ethos stands out in the challenging ways governments of developing nations can operate, I embraced the opportunity. I wanted to use my skills, my experience, and my exposure to the best practices in the industry to contribute to expanding financial services for the benefit of society. A Chicago Booth and Harvard alumnus, I could not have been any prouder and more honored to serve DRC for the first time in my life.

Two weeks into the role, and after resigning officially from my role of CEO of Standard Bank DRC, I knew I would eventually be fired. I was rapidly faced with the litmus test of my moral and professional integrity. Every time that I would promote high standards and the most transparent processes to the organization, some of my stakeholders would systemically sabotage my executive decisions and dismiss my concerns, thus undermining the national agenda. Five months into the job, my resignation had been rejected twice before I was irregularly suspended and indefinitely put on garden leave. I was paying for choosing my integrity over a job in which my work ethic would suffocate.

My trust in the administrative system took a tremendous beating: I was de facto fired for promoting the right thing. Subsequently, I needed to heal my wounds, protect my reputation, and bounce back. To prepare for similar challenges in the future, I took responsibility and learned lessons from all stakeholders. Resilience is also about owning the script of our lives and shaping our personal narrative. In the end, how we respond to situations matters more than what happens to us.

Dash: I graduated with my MBA into a year that I hoped would be flush with possibilities but instead was a minefield of difficult decisions. For one, the economy had tanked—and it all happened right around when we graduated. Being an artist with an MBA was an incongruous pairing, and I was the risky outlier whom no one wanted to take a chance on in an economy that was listing out of control. Two, and even more pressing, I was faced with a serious health scare that needed to be dealt with immediately—my right kidney was failing, and quickly. Three, I had no income and no health insurance, and apparently no career prospects. The career I imagined I would have when I graduated with a Booth MBA had dissipated with the stock market, my physical limitations, and the overall anxiety of the future.

"Resilience and humility, being thick-skinned to rejection, and always being grateful, enthusiastic and kind, have helped me greatly."

— Meenakshi Dash

I moved to Hong Kong, as I had family and infrastructure there, and underwent treatment and a nephrectomy in India, where the medical costs were low but the quality high. In 2009 I started my fashion and design brand, Balderdash, and I established my network of manufacturers across Asia while I traveled to and from India and Hong Kong—deliberately working with nongovernmental organizations that employed women artisans. I strategically pinpointed the high-end retail stores I wanted to sell to, sought out the owners of these stores persistently through any far-flung connection I had, and ultimately received a great deal of coveted press and success.

In order to get through any adversity, I rely on my ability to proactively knock on doors and push them open to create my own opportunities. Resilience and humility, being thick-skinned to rejection, and always being grateful, enthusiastic and kind, have helped me greatly. I have also never lost sight of my goals, which are simple: create impact and empower people to change their lives for the better.

What advice do you give to anyone who’s recently been laid off or furloughed?

Dash: We have a few friends who have been laid off, and the advice that my husband (also a Booth grad) and I have given them is, “This is an opportunity to skill up. It’s also an opportunity to leverage your experience and see where you can break into an industry that actually can use your experience.” Think about pivoting into a company or an industry or an area that you might not have considered before, but which could value your experience given that it is actually staying afloat during this crisis. I’ve had a few students who have had their start dates pushed back, and I tell them, “Make use of the summer. Do something that you have wanted to study or learn because you have the opportunity now and you have the time to do that.”

Mboma: You know the value of your education. You went to Booth for a reason. You went for it, not only to learn at a specific point in time, but also to create an ability to handle issues and address problems across sectors. You are equipped to carve out a path for struggling companies through this tense and depressed economy, armed with the most rigorous and globally recognized frameworks. Your experience can be used beyond previous roles by leveraging your transferable skills to different sectors. Those talents are going to be a huge value add for every organization going forward. These are assets that you must not lose sight of.

An umbrella with a briefcase as the canopy

Brick: It depends on their circumstances. But they need to ask themselves, “Do I need a job tomorrow? Am I not able to pay my rent?” One thing to consider is the “Should I find a part-time project?” approach. If you go to where the job listings are, like to Booth’s Global Talent Solutions (GTS) database, there are not only full-time jobs, but also projects and part-time jobs. Even prior to all of this, there was a way to find work remotely. That’s been there for years.

I was chatting with someone recently, and she said, “I have to find a job tomorrow.” I asked, “OK. What’s going on?” And she said, “Well, I just need it because I have to have something to do.” We talked about how long she could support herself, and it turned out she could actually stay afloat for quite some time. You want to consider the level of your financial need. If it’s urgent, you do need to take action now, and there are certainly resources at Booth: programs, coaching, GTS, resume advice. There are many different things that you can do.

During this time, what can Booth alumni do to distinguish themselves?

Mboma: Booth is a community. As a member of the Booth community, you should open the doors. You should open the conversation—not necessarily by giving a job to someone, but at least by giving guidance and sometimes just comfort. Be to others the resource you would have needed to have access to—someone you would want to talk to if you had been affected by the economic consequences of the pandemic. Exchange ideas on what should be going on in specific industries. It is also a time to make use of your EQ and reconnect with your network to check on others without expecting anything but news. That’s one of the ways long-lasting relationships are built.

Dash: If you’re a Booth graduate in real estate, for example, but real estate is not hiring, how can you provide perspective that’ll be useful to a student? This is a moment in time. It seems overwhelming right now, but eventually we’ll get past this and look back.

The second thing is purely tactical: If there is an industry that is actually leaning in to the crisis, does it have job openings where it could use Booth talent? Does it have internships? Does it have project work? Utilize and seek out Booth talent during this time.

If you’re gainfully employed, is now the wrong time to look for new employment?

Dash: It depends on what you want to do. If you want to go into hospitality or you want to join an airline, I would say, yeah, possibly now is the wrong time. But if you feel that you are positioned well to move into a company that is hiring and you have a skill set that aligns well with the job description, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to apply or get it.

Brick: I’ll share with you what I’m hearing from alumni and students: if they’re in a position that they feel is fairly secure at this time, and if they like what they’re doing and they’re still learning, they’re probably going to stay put. When you unravel a job, there are other things that come into play, such as the gap in coverage when you’re moving to a new company’s health-care plan, for example. Another thing to consider is that if you make a move at this juncture, the social capital and the personal equity that you have from your history in the company goes away.

Mboma: You need to look at the current environment as something that is not going to last forever, but I do think you need to make sure that whatever is in your hands today, you’re managing that to the best of your abilities.

What’s the best way to network right now without striking the wrong notes?

Brick: It’s about being upfront and honest, with a strong dose of empathy and sensitivity for the other person. If you “forget” there is a human being on the other side of the conversation, you will create a transaction, not an advocate. There was a big study done looking at dormant contacts, or people that you haven’t spoken to in a while. The study was with executives, and they thought it was going to be really awful reaching out to people that they hadn’t spoken to for some time. They anticipated it would be much harder than building new contacts. But that was not the case. Of course, you never want to ask for a job, but the outreach really will stick if you have done your homework. Keep in mind that if you don’t have a network today, it’s going to be really hard to build one right now. And if you’re just reaching out to everybody, that’s not going to work.

A briefcase illustrated as a life preserver

Mboma: I don’t send out massive emails or do a lot of cold calls. Be natural, yet structured and dynamic to build a dense and active network. If you are genuinely interested in people around you or in your network, most of the interaction will come naturally. What I do now, for instance, is to reconnect by checking up on people in my network via LinkedIn or WhatsApp to see how they’re doing with COVID-19. Make sure everybody is fine—ask if people are safe, wherever they are, and so on. I would send a text about that, and that would trigger a conversation. Such a dialogue would bring up family and professional considerations.

Dash: Before that first conversation, you should have done some amount of research beforehand. For example, I’d look up these people’s companies to see whether they have furloughed or laid off employees, or if they’re even staying afloat. If things seem fairly OK, I’d start by saying something like, “I hope you don’t mind my reaching out to you. I understand it’s a difficult time and completely understand if you do not have the time to have a conversation with me, but I would love to learn more about your role and your challenges and successes in your industry. Would you be available on Thursday or Friday just for a 10-minute call?”

“Understand your differentiation, because you need to stand out in some way.”

— Anita Brick

Do you get better results from sending out hundreds of untargeted resumes or a few targeted ones?

Dash: Focus. Be targeted, specific, and customized. Think about building a network, understanding the company and the industry, and having conversations with people who can turn into your advocates. That way, when you do apply, you already have a team of people who have spoken to you and understand the benefits and skill set that you bring to their team or company.

Brick: Being more targeted helps, but it’s probably as important to understand your differentiation, because you need to stand out in some way. It’s a combination of your skills, knowledge, and experience, and your branding to some degree. In terms of applying for jobs, just plainly applying online will likely create a lot of frustration. I would say one of the things that has changed over the last several years, even before the pandemic, is that sometimes you apply and you never hear anything. Nothing. You used to get at least a form letter thanking you, but now you shouldn’t be surprised if you hear nothing.

What do you see as the ‘next normal’ in the workforce?

Dash: The workforce is going to be more resilient. We’re going to be able to hustle and pivot far more quickly because we’ve had to do it now. Just think about how fast we’ve had to figure out working from home—navigating that huge change from physically going into the office to instead taking Zoom calls all day and having to be “on,” all from a small area in your house. That’s a distinction. I also think the workforce is going to be far more competitive. The opportunities for innovation will be greater coming out of this, but we may also see companies that don’t make it through.

Mboma: It’s what we’re doing now—working and interacting remotely, easily. We have always had those tools, but we did not have them built into our day-to-day routines. It’s as though globalization is reaching a new shape, a new stage. We’ll probably be traveling less, and this might not be a bad thing. That’s the first thing I see.

I can also see production systems geared mostly toward tracking performance and basically evaluating the work deliverables qualitatively, versus clocking your time sitting at the office. It’s going to be more about the substance of what you do than your physical presence.

Dash: We’re not going to be as complacent. Many of us remember what it felt like when 2008–09 happened. But if we think about the newest generation going into the workforce, they were either teenagers or preteens during that time. It was their parents who were going through it. They hadn’t built up that hustle mentality or that resilience, and what’s happening today is a shock to the system for any age group. In my mind, any shock to the economy, any setback, any challenge brings out great opportunity and innovation.

A microphone inside an open suitcase

Tune In to CareerCast

Since 2006, Anita Brick has hosted and produced CareerCast, a podcast that features interviews with some of the most articulate, innovative minds in business today. While you’re guaranteed to hear recommendations and inside tips about navigating your career, Brick’s interviews just as often are deep-dive discussions about the human spirit, new perspectives, and new ideas. Here are three of her favorite conversations:

Innovative Trailblazers with Sean Pillot de Chenecey
Aired May 15, 2020
Brick spoke to Pillot de Chenecey, an author and brand expert, during the COVID-19 outbreak, and he shared his vision of the “new normal.” Said Pillot de Chenecey, “Tomorrow’s customer is going to be clearly poorer, [more] nervous, obsessed with social distancing and also with hygiene. Those issues that are the very basics of living, of existing, are going to be key in terms of where their businesses go and what tension points they try to answer in order to find something useful for consumers. You have to take a fundamental look at what you do, why you’re here, if there’s a future for your business or the sector in which you exist, and what you are going to do about it.”

Driving Disruptive Innovation with Doug Hall
Aired November 15, 2019
In this episode, Brick spoke with the best-selling author, inventor, and founder of Eureka! Ranch, an international innovation think tank that helps companies create new products. “He created an algorithm where you can produce a 30-year-old scotch taste in 40 minutes,” Brick said. Hall shared during the episode that “in today’s world there’s a real movement that people want to have their own [thing]. . . . They want their own family whiskey. Once you break the rules—and it’s like this with all innovations—keep going.”

Authentic Success with Karl LaRowe and Ravi Vig

Aired September 20, 2019
In this episode, Brick welcomed Karl LaRowe, AM ’80, and Ravi Vig, ’09 (AXP-8), the authors of You Are Good Enough! (2019), who suggested building a practice of self-reflection. That means spending a little bit of time each day relaxing and checking in with yourself to notice what you’re feeling and what you’re thinking. If you want to pursue the idea of “authentic success,” LaRowe said, “you’ve really got to begin to get down inside yourself and be honest about who you are.”

Find these and all CareerCast episodes at ChicagoBooth.edu/careercast.

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