After the Meltdown: Is Your Network a Trap?

Solid suggestions for networking in tough times.


When a market crashes, the advice career coaches give displaced senior-level executives matches financial experts’ guidance for consumers: Don’t abandon the assets you’ve spent years building just because they suddenly look – at best – like major liabilities.

That’s easy to understand with a stock; stock prices recover. But what about the Rolodex of contacts so devastated by layoffs and fear that they suddenly seem less like a supportive community and more like an army of rivals?

It makes job hunting a lot harder and networking a lot more awkward. But it also means networking becomes even more important as a recovery strategy, job seekers and recruiters told Ladders.

“Esther,” a member of Ladders, recently lost her job as a lawyer for a major financial institution – her second layoff in two years. “Two years ago I got laid off as part of a merger; I survived four mergers, but not the fifth,” Esther said. “In that case my company was fine, but my department was not, and I had people calling me to say they were sorry to hear I had lost my job and ask what they can do. One called a contact, who was a client at a financial institution, and said, ‘I have this great talent who lost her job because of a merger and I couldn’t recommend her highly enough.’ And they said, ‘That’s great, because I just lost so-and-so.'”

“That was in ’06,” Esther said. “Now those same people are in a different situation.” Given the scope of the current finance-industry woes, potential referrers “have to worry about their own reputation and about imposing on their own contacts. So, where recommending someone used to be a win-win-win – [the referrer] got the credit, the [employer] got a good hire, and the person got a good job – now they feel like people are not in hiring mode and they’re just asking a favor. And they don’t want to cash in a chip on a recommendation to a company that’s not hiring.”

Even recruiters are much more selective, largely because their clients are double-checking every new job opening to see which can remain unfilled and building much more elaborate requirements for the job openings that are approved.

“The bullet lists have gotten very long,” Esther said. “Before they would have a general description of the job; now, the requirements have gotten excessively specific. That’s mainly for the HR people, though, who often don’t really know exactly what they’re looking for. In real life, once you get in the door and talk to the people who would be doing the hiring, they don’t really expect you to have that full list of qualifications.”

“If you’re in a marketplace that’s been completely eviscerated, it’s true that you’re just not going to have as many sympathetic people out there looking to help you,” according to Robert Hawthorne, president of Hawthorne Executive Search, which works with Ladders. “It’s pretty tough in financial services right now,” he said. “We’ve had more resumes come in over the transom in the last three months than you would in a year from that industry.”

“I just spoke to a gathering of Financial Executives International in Halifax, and they were all quaking in their boots,” Lynne Waymon, co-author of FireProof Your Career and co-founder of career- and networking-coaching consultancy Contacts Count, told Ladders.

Companies in financial services cut almost 200,000 jobs between August 2007 and August 2008, according to a report from outplacement consultants Challenger, Gray and Christmas, and more cuts are likely in the next six to 12 months.

After Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. declared bankruptcy in September, Wall Street recruiters predicted no more than a quarter of Lehman’s 25,000 employees would end up working on Wall Street. No one is making precise predictions about the fallout from Bank of America’s acquisition of Merrill Lynch or J.P. Morgan Chase’s digestion of Washington Mutual. More than half of Bear Stearns’ employees lost their jobs earlier this year, after it was acquired by JP Morgan Chase.

Don’t Give up Those Contacts!
No matter how bad the carnage or what the industry, however, the one thing anyone with long-term career goals should never do is abandon the network of contacts they spent years building up, recruiters and career coaches told Ladders.

“Don’t ever forget about your network,” according to Jim Villwock, president of expense-management service IEM Group Inc. and author of the forthcoming Whacked Again!- Secrets to Getting Back on the Executive Saddle. “You may have to network outside your traditional network, but you have to work it more than ever, and that doesn’t mean just going to someone for help. It means helping someone else out, because no one’s going to help you if they feel like you’re there to take advantage.”

“You’ve got four networks,” Contacts Count’s Waymon said. “Take a pencil and divide a sheet of paper in four: In one corner you have your worknet; these are the people you work with. Since you got laid off, they may have been too, or might be, so these are really tenuous right now. To the right is your orgnet; that’s for people who work for the same company, but not in the same department. Clever networkers build that orgnet so they know people in other teams and geographical areas that can be useful; you might end up working as the only one with your skills in a different department, for example.

“In the upper left corner is your pronet – people you know professionally who do the same kind of work, but not at your company. Those are very valuable for specific leads, even in a bad market,” Waymon said. “In the last corner is your lifenet – your family and friends. Most people quarantine their lifenet, but that’s the place the most unexpected opportunities come from. Your mother-in-law may know someone who should be in your pronet and who could connect you with someone with a great recommendation for a job. The best networkers are aware of all of these, and the magic is in the synergy.”

The key is not to rely on just one or two sets of connections, IEM’s Villwock said. Professional organizations, especially those that charge a fee and vet their membership to ensure everyone in the group is qualified at the same level or in the same specialty as others in the group, were invented largely to help members during exactly the kind of downturn currently ravaging the financial-services industry.

“You have to do more than just talk,” Villwock said. “We tell people to find three to five peers, people you feel very comfortable with, and who are looking for the same thing. Even if you feel like you’re in competition with each other, meet once a week to share leads and help each other out.

Hang Together or Hang Separately
“If one of you gets a call from a headhunter for a perfect job, your job is to tell the others about that opportunity,” Villwock said. “Most people will say that’s a terrible idea. It’s not. You want to make sure as many of your team as you can gets on the slate that headhunter is putting together. The job doesn’t depend on you being there alone; it’s chemistry and differences in background that make the difference.

“Not everyone in your group is going to fit; you might not win it the first time, but doing that with five people in your group, you’ve increased your leads by 500 percent,” Villwock said. “The group has to commit that they’re going to help each other, even after one or more of them have got a job.”

Networks need to extend beyond one geographic or technical specialty area, as well, according to Bob Cozzens, president of the National Banking & Financial Services Network — a network that connects individual and boutique recruiters nationwide in the same way the Multiple Listing Service connects real estate agents.

Just because one part of the market is being decimated doesn’t mean they all are, Cozzens says. “New York might be in deep trouble, but Texas? Maybe not. Even in New York, typically the people being laid off are not the people with the skills that are needed,” Cozzens says.

Everyone in the market is very risk-averse, Esther said. “The last few weeks have been like 9/11 all over again. It’s just been devastating for the financial industry. But people who think there’s no hiring are wrong; there is, you just have to work at it a little harder.”

“There is still a lot of traditional hiring going on,” Cozzens said, especially people who are skilled in fixing the kinds of problems that afflict the rest of the market – evaluating the value of “bad” assets, or working out payment plans for loans that would otherwise default.”We’ve noticed an increase in the credit side of the equation.”