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Finding order in the chaos, taking back your life in 2020

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Guest post By Aidan Johnson | March 20th 2021
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Midway through my MBA at one of Europe’s top business schools, I found myself in the career doldrums. The promising internships I’d lined up had evaporated overnight, as global hiring froze to a standstill and Covid-fuelled uncertainty set in around the world. Like many MBA students at the time, I was left stunned and bewildered. 

 

I returned to South Africa with my tail between my legs, to regroup and wait out the Summer break. 

 

I needed a big break

 

By April 2020 it was clear that many around the world had found themselves in a rut. Home workouts and family Zoom calls excited us all for a while, but it wasn’t long before  ‘lockdown fatigue’ began to set in. 

 

While many were fairly content with the notion of effectively ‘writing off’ 2020, those who had committed to transformational journeys during the year – such as MBA students – were understandably less eager to forfeit the year altogether. I too was desperate to avoid stagnation, but I needed a big break.  

 

Lesson 1: Sweat your Assets

Among the resources that top-tier MBA programs offer their students, access to world-class professors and business professionals ranks very highly. I was busy completing a thesis and had been gifted the globally recognized Professor and Leadership Coach, Dr. Julia Milner as my supervising professor – which is a bit like having Michael Phelps teaching you the backstroke. This was the break I needed, and I wasn’t going to waste it. Although Julia was tasked with assisting me on my thesis assignment, I also enlisted her help on a personal pursuit; the forming of my own coaching & consulting business.

 

The opportunity to leverage  Julia’s vast expertise as a renowned coach was just too rich an opportunity to pass up, and I  tugged on both her affinity for the coaching discipline as well as her passion for working with students to persuade her to assist me in both capacities. Looking back now, it was the catalyst for an incredible personal comeback. 

 

With Julia’s help, I was able to build a formidable thesis that received a master’s distinction. But the grade was just the tip of the iceberg. The thesis was focused on the impact that Covid-19 has had on the world’s travel industry and included a bespoke evaluation tool that enables companies to measure their resilience and degree of readiness for global shocks.  With this topic in hand, I set off to interview industry executives while at the same time offering them insights I’d gathered to use in their own businesses as they fought to survive.  Some execs asked for help, others for ideas that I’d gained during my analysis. It opened up new lines of professional communication as I emerged an industry specialist in a matter of weeks, today being able to position myself as a crisis management expert in the midst of a  global pandemic. I couldn’t ask for a more relevant field to exploit. 

 

At the same time, I was building my business. With Julia’s help, I was able to tap into high-profile coaches from around the world whom I learned from, connected with, and found fresh new 3rd party contacts through – many of which I maintain today. You’ll be amazed at who will help you out if you reach out and ask. At one point I had Brent Spilken, Jamil Qureshi, and Sally A Illingworth all offering to lend a helping hand. I even had one coach whom I’d interviewed, subsequently hire me to build a series of coaching videos for her own coaching & development business. 

 

Activity begets activity. Churn breeds growth. But it requires that you get out of bed. You’ll be amazed at who will help you if you reach out and ask. 

 

So where did these folks get me? Well, I started off working on a thesis. I used a world-class professor to guide the project, achieve a distinction, and direct me toward industry leaders who now trust my council with their own businesses. I’m in contact with half a dozen top executives and have something relevant and substantial to offer them. I’ve built a coaching business under the tutelage of one of Europe’s most widely recognized leadership coaches and along the way, I’ve formed relationships with some of the industry’s most trusted names. 

 

The lesson here is that we’ve all got resources at our disposal. Some are hidden and others are scary, but they’re there, and 2020 is the year to sweat them. 

 

Lesson 2: Leave your Pride back in 2019

I’d now made some progress. Thesis done, Business registered, and work underway with the coaching job. I was on a roll. I wanted to start thinking long-term, about the conversations I’d be having with organizations when the dust settled and they were once again hiring. I needed a big corporate name on my profile, and I wanted to consult. 

 

I needed a big corporate name on my profile

 

I decided to offer my consulting services free of charge – for a single big client over the  Summer. When I ran the idea by my career coach, he called it ‘brilliant’. Friends and family thought it was ‘inspired’ and recruiters said that ‘companies would be lucky to have me’. 

 

But nobody took up the offer.  

 

It turned out that, with a hiring freeze in place at most big corporations, even pro-bono work  required HR teams to draw up contracts and make unfamiliar executive phone calls while under a ‘no hire’ order. Unfortunately, big corporations aren’t known for either entrepreneurial thinking or quick decision-making – as I was beginning to learn.  

 

I had one other option. My first boss at PepsiCo was a no-nonsense sales guy. The kind of guy that would always pick up the phone before sending an email. He loathed bureaucracy,  and he taught me that you’re never too important to roll your sleeves up and pack a fridge full of soft drinks. I knew that if I called him, he’d be interested. The problem was that I was proud. I felt that if I called him up offering to work for free it would look desperate,  vulnerable, or even presumptuous. 

 

What convinced me, in the end, was a basic cost v benefit analysis. The costs were pride and a  little elbow grease. The benefits were a prominent name on the resume, the opportunity to sharpen my consulting skills, and the chance to reconnect with PepsiCo execs. It was a no-brainer. 

 

My old boss signed up on the spot. He did the process legwork himself, getting both the executive team and HR onboard in record time, and a few weeks later I was consulting on a  meaty expansion project. I now had even more new connections who valued my expertise, an opportunity to learn and to showcase my skills, and a credible organization that had trusted me with their business. Importantly, I now also had access to senior executives who were able to connect me with the right people in the company’s European offices – where I was targeting a career – and the project also scored me the credentials to take on other consulting projects – which led to another consulting assignment (this time with a retainer) with a local alcohol brand. 

 

If there was ever a time for calling in favors, or leaning on colleagues, it’s now. 

 

The decision to consult pro bono has already paid out handsomely. Inexperience, in connections, and ultimately even in financial rewards. It’s one of those things that seems crazy or desperate before you’ve started but makes total sense once it’s done.  

 

The key takeout here is that it’s 2020 – generally considered the worst year of our lives. If there was ever a time for calling in favors, or leaning on colleagues, it’s now. Leave your pride at the door, and pick up the phone.

 

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Lesson 3: Think Big Picture

Perspective is everything. The best decisions I’ve ever made were based on an understanding of where I come from, where I am, and where I want to go. If your decisions are rooted in this kind of basic framework, then it’s easy to identify whether your actions get you closer to,  or further from your goal.

 

It also helped to think about my future self, looking back on 2020 that was intended to be the most transformational year of my life. Had I chugged along like many others, ruing missed internships and learning opportunities scuppered by the virus, would I feel that I’d given 2020 my best shot? How would I explain this chapter in my journey to my next employer, or to myself? 

 

As I head back to France for my final semester, three lessons for dealing with personal &  professional crisis have emerged. 

 

(i) Sweat your assets. You’ve spent years hoarding them for a rainy day. This is that day. 

 

(ii) Drop your Pride. Call in your chips. Make the difficult call. It’s all on the line in 2020  and you’ll never need your old boss more than you do now. 

 

(iii) Think big picture. If your actions today aren’t getting you closer to your destination tomorrow, then you need to rethink your tactics (or your destination).  

 

Summer 2020 saw me a student in an existentialist rut. Autumn 2020 sees me a coach, a  consultant, a business owner and a crisis management expert. What happened in between was not luck nor rocket science. It was a handful of decisions. Three lessons. And a resilient mindset.

 

The better you get to know your team, the more they feel they can trust you. Make team socializing and bonding a priority. Fun and light conversations on a chat tool loosen the tension for more serious conversations. This is not a waste of meeting or work time; it’s a  way to ensure employees feel connected, which is crucial in building a trustworthy remote culture.  

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