An economic downturn is not just a term to denote the decline of financial markets or a shrinking GDP. It reflects business uncertainties, wavering consumer confidence, and stalled growth ambitions. It brings a slew of uncertainties, fatigue, and stressors that impact not only the organisations but also their most valuable assets—their employees. Economic downturns, such as the one we are experiencing now, result from several global forces, and the startup ecosystem isn't immune to them.
While the economy will continue to ebb and flow, our response to the situation need not be one of despair, hopelessness, and quitting in its loud and quiet variants. This phenomenon becomes particularly pronounced in organisations striving to scale up either at their growth stages or in the early days of their journey. Redundancies and economic uncertainties significantly impact morale, and it deserves its own space.
Still, the more profound question that led to this article is: How does one build resilience against it?
Upskilling, or adding more skills and knowledge to one's repertoire, is one of the most strategic ways to weatherproof one's career against economic downturns. Financial gurus will tell you that your personal asset management plan should include a budget for your self-development on an ongoing basis, so it's not just us—learning and development professionals—who endorse this fact.
Here are a few more reasons to build a strong arsenal of skills that go beyond domain expertise:
- Learning new skills challenges and keeps the brain sharp and agile. This cognitive acuity helps in problem-solving, boosts creativity and adaptability, and helps you build a growth mindset.
- Upskilling, aka additional skills and certifications on your resume, helps you build your professional brand and make candidates more attractive to prospective employers.
- It equips you with a broader knowledge base, enabling you to make multidisciplinary decisions to tackle complex issues by drawing from diverse skills and perspectives.
During his commencement speech at Stanford University in 2005, Steve Jobs recalled how the cost of his academic life at Reed University led him to drop out to save his parents' entire life savings. So, having dropped out, he decided to take a class in calligraphy. 'I learned about serif and sans-serif typefaces, varying the space between different letter combinations, and what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating.' Ten years after college, when Jobs designed his first Mac, a seismic shift happened concerning letters and type—a wide choice of fonts was born.
Upskilling may or may not pay off soon, but long-term success is guaranteed. I often find employees struggling to decide what to upskill in, and more often than not, this critical decision is delegated to friends, family, and colleagues.
Just like the calligraphy course Jobs took, there are chances that it might work out, but in answering what to upskill in, it may be worth one's time to evaluate what aligns best with one's ikigai. Declining attention spans and the demands of adulthood can make it difficult to sustain progress; hence, making an informed decision about where to invest time and money is worth it. Learning is personal, so personalise your learning according to your needs.
The path from there gets fairly simplified. One can go the whole way and enrol in a course from an Ivy League college or choose various mini and micro-learning courses available online.
A path that has worked well for me personally is to identify a mentor and follow the path of instruction and inspiration. In this case, identifying the right mentor is essential, and mentors need not be from your organisation or the same department. Seventy-six percent of people say that mentors are important, but only 37% actually have one. Why the gap? In my experience, most people fear asking for that initial meeting. The fear of rejection is real, but don't let a little fear get in the way of your career progression.
Other guidelines to consider as you map your upskilling journey are:
● Immediate application: Focus on skills that can be applied immediately in your current role. Practicality and relevance should guide skills development, as this aids retention and reinforces learning.
● Personality development skills: Don't overlook the significance of soft skills that have a hard impact on your professional development. While your vocational skills will take you from here to there, skills like emotional intelligence, negotiation, conflict management and leadership are invaluable in navigating economic downturns and the broader career landscape.
● Keep a check on your health: Economic downturns or not, a good diet, exercise and rest are critical for getting gains from your learning and building your overall resilience. If you are dealing with persistent stressors and triggers, speak to a licensed therapist to redirect your energy towards knowledge gains so you can resonate with your ikigai.
Startups increasingly rely on employees who can swiftly scale their knowledge across different departments, often requiring them to be master generalists rather than deep specialists. In the ever-evolving landscape of the business world and downturns, upskilling provides the ability to turn challenges into opportunities to emerge stronger and ready for the future's uncertainties. This is especially true in the early to mid-level stages of one's career, where versatility and the ability to pivot are prized assets.