How to Advance Your Career When Your Company Is Downsizing

Advancing your career during a company downsizing requires a shift in your mindset and actions. In this article, the author offers five strategies to turn adversity into a stepping stone for your professional growth: 1) Reframe your thinking. 2) Fill the vacuum. 3) Look for quick wins. 4) Negotiate for later. 5) Make a sideways move.

As an operations director at a manufacturing company, Marlow was on the fast track for growth. In the last year, her team had doubled in size, thanks in large part to her ability to shepherd them through turbulent change and push through a number of important supply-chain initiatives.

Marlow’s results and dedication had positioned her for an exciting opportunity — a newly created role as vice president of process optimization. A promotion was a goal she had set her sights on and represented a chance to make an even greater impact while shaping the future of the company.

Unfortunately, just as Marlow was on the cusp of this major career move, the market took a downturn and the company’s profits quickly plummeted with it. In the face of economic challenges, difficult decisions had to be made. Marlow’s once flourishing team was cut in half, and to make matters worse, the vice president role she had been eagerly anticipating was dissolved. She found herself at a crossroads, questioning how to move forward when her aspirations were seems derailed.

Many leaders and professionals find themselves in Marlow’s position — feeling heartened and uncertain as to how to advance their careers as their companies downsize. It’s no wonder when layoffs are up nearly five-fold in 2023 with no end to financial instability in sight.

Organizations are always looking for ways to trim costs and their bottom line. While that can mean devastating changes like spending freezes and job cuts, it doesn’t have to doom your career prospects. In fact, it can be a springboard for growth. Here’s how to navigate the disruptions that come with cost-cutting measures and emerge stronger.

Reframe your thinking.

Experiencing a range of emotions — sadness, anger, self-doubt — is natural during times of organizational turmoil. But shutting down, avoiding the situation, and feeling sorry for yourself will get you nowhere and only leave you feeling stuck. Instead, embrace change and uncertainty as part of the job description.

Whether the cause is technological advancements, shifting market dynamics, or evolving customer expectations, companies are restructuring at a rapid pace. You have to be ready for transitions both big and small at any moment. Hard times reveal your character and where your leadership is needed most. You can choose to adopt the perspective of seeing upheaval as a crucible moment that presents an opportunity to provide value and emerge as a resilient, influential leader who drives positive change.

Fill the vacuum.

Step up and fill the void created by shifting sands. Change can be unsettling, and that’s why stability becomes crucial. Align your efforts with the company’s new priorities, which typically include a focus on core offerings, cost containment, and operational efficiency, as well as employee and customer retention.

Despite the setbacks she faced, Marlow quickly recognized the importance of reducing costs during the downturn and having a laser-like focus on key business areas. Marlow realigned her team’s efforts towards essential operations only. Tabling several innovation projects was a hard decision, but Marlow’s shrewdness caught the eye of senior management, who appreciated her display of strategic prioritization.

Look for quick wins.

During turbulent times, everyone is looking for a savior. It’s likely that morale and confidence are rattled up and down the chain, from junior employees all the way up to the C-suite. By identifying — and quickly acting on — areas for improvement, you can position yourself as a valuable asset, someone who gets results while keeping the company’s best interests at heart.

Look for ways to make a tangible impact in a small amount of time. For example, you could:

  • Renegotiate a supplier contract
  • Find a cheaper way to source materials
  • Collaborate with other departments to conserve resources
  • Implement automation to streamline a process
  • Launch your product to an untapped customer segment
  • Develop a campaign to boost repeat purchases

Negotiate for later.

After the VP role was dissolved, Marlow explained to her manager that she understood the company’s financial constraints and why the process optimization role that she had been looking forward to was dissolved. Then she proposed a way forward balancing the organization’s needs while keeping her long-term goals in mind.

“While I understand that major changes might not be possible right now, I want to discuss the possibility of revisiting my scope down the road,” she said. “I could take on X responsibilities now, but with a commitment to explore opportunities in the process optimization domain in the future when the market improves.”

Like Marlow, you also want to read the room. Right now might not be the time to ask for a major change to your role, responsibilities, or compensation, but you can try to get a commitment for later. For example, “I’m happy to take on X right now, as long as there is a commitment to revisit my scope down the road.” Or “I want to help, but my ultimate goal is to go in Y direction. When do you think you could make this happen?”

Make a sideways move.

While up-and-to-the-left career advancement may be limited during a downsizing, lateral moves can still provide opportunities to learn new skills and gain new experiences. A sideways move allows you to broaden your skill set, which enhances your versatility and makes you a more valuable asset to the organization. Suppose you’re in a sales role. A sideways move to the product development team can give you a deep understanding of the product development process, market research, and customer needs analysis. Offering your sales insights means the company can better align their offerings with market demands.

Moving laterally also exposes you to new colleagues and expands your professional network. This can open the door to collaboration on future projects, mentorship opportunities, and access to a wider range of knowledge about internal politics. Plus, it exposes you to new stakeholders, decision-makers and senior leaders. The more people you know — and the more people that know you — the more opportunities will come your way.

Advancing your career during a company downsizing requires a shift in your mindset and actions. By adopting these strategies, you can turn adversity into a stepping stone for professional growth.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top