Riding the Waves During the Recession: An Interview with Authors Gregory Shea and Robert Gunther

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Face it: In today’s economy, whether you’re in an entry-level position or upper management, no job is secure. You can easily drown in the uncertainty. Luckily, Gregory Shea and Robert Gunther, authors of Your Job Survival Guide: A Manuel for Thriving in Change (FT Press, 2008) are here to give us some helpful hints about keeping afloat during the recession.

Why is this issue so important for you?

Gregory Shea: We no longer live in a stable world. We no longer live in a world that occasionally changes. We live in a world that changes continuously, what Peter Vaill calls "permanent whitewater." Change is not the exception, but rather the constant. They didn’t just move your cheese once. The cheese floats down a river of permanent whitewater. Consequently, to survive—and thrive—we all need to change the way we think and act.

I have seen very talented managers and executives, in the classroom and in my consulting, chewed up and spit out by this environment. They thrash about and even drown in change. The environment is relentless. They tried to meet a relentless environment, a permanent whitewater environment, with their old skills. They took a scull or crew boat down the Grand Canyon. Not a good idea. The world has changed and we need new ways of meeting it.

Robert Gunther: When I first heard Greg talk about the current environment as "permanent whitewater," it clicked for me. I grew up whitewater kayaking and I knew that most people view a whitewater river as chaotic and very dangerous. But paddlers have a completely different mindset. They realize that with the right skills and equipment, you can go down a wild river relatively safely and actually have fun along this way. This requires a shift in mindset. In this book, we give readers the skills they need to plunge into this environment and not only survive—but thrive in it.

I noticed a lot of your chapters had to do with water. For example, one chapter mentions the Titanic in the title, another talks of eddies and another talks of flotation. Why do you think water is such a powerful metaphor when it comes to a job survival guide?

Shea: The whitewater theme runs throughout the book. It describes the environment most of us are living and working in. The churning and racing river does not stop and neither does change. It just keep coming and coming. So this metaphor helps people get a handle on why this environment is different. A whitewater river is not just a faster version of a bubbling brook; it is a different animal altogether.

Gunther: The whitewater metaphor also helps us understand what we need to do about this environment. The skills of kayakers in meeting a whitewater river have parallels in the workplace. Paddlers also show how you can thrive within a turbulent environment.

How has your professional experience prepared you for writing this?

Shea: I work with senior executives and major corporations on major change initiatives. I’ve worked, for example, with companies in telecommunications, health care, financial services, power and other fast-changing industries. A manager who moved from the old Ma Bell era to today’s telecom market needs no convincing that this is permanent whitewater. I’ve had a chance to see firsthand the dangers of this environment as well as the strategies—often counterintuitive—that lead to success.

Gunther: I have co-authored or collaborated on more than two dozen business books, but it is my whitewater paddling experience that opened my eyes to the differences in the way paddlers think about the world. They are not reckless, and while they seek a thrill or two, they work hard to gain the skills that allow them to carefully and safely make their way down rivers. Ordinary people can learn these skills. These paddlers do not differ from other people. They have just learned a different way to meet these extreme environments.

Who is your target audience?

Gunther: This book is for everyone. If by some miracle you are working in a stable, flat-water, steady-state environment, you may not need these ideas. But if you are in whitewater, these are the skills that will get you down the river. We need to learn to pace ourselves, take responsibility for our own security, learn to make mistakes and recover quickly—and a whole set of other skills that we cover in the book.

Shea: These principles apply to anyone in a fast-changing environment. Nonetheless, I’ve worked with many top leaders of companies in diverse industries and these ideas carry special importance for CEOs who need to hire, lead and manage people in a way that keeps them from drowning in change. The CEO can set the tone, give them a clear sense of where they are and challenge employees to change their mindsets.

What type of worker do you think is most at risk of losing his or her job during the recession? How does this book help?

Shea: Everyone is at risk, and, surprisingly, it is not just during a recession. Between 1998 and 2000, in the middle of a red-hot economy, 30 to 50 percent of companies were laying people off. Look at Japanese workers—the quintessential "job for life" culture—and they are moving to temporary workers at record rates. This churn and this transitory nature of jobs has become a fact of life, one that any of us ignore at considerable peril. Forces such as global competition and technology make it unlikely or impossible that we can go back…or that the pace of change will do anything save increase. The dam has broken and it is impossible to put the whitewater back. Since we can’t change the environment, we need to develop the skills to succeed in it.

Gunther: Given what Greg has said, keeping your job may not be an option. But this book can help you develop the skills to better keep your job as long as you can and to move on to your next job—or non-job—when the ocean liner that you’ve staked your future on runs into an iceberg. Your networks, portfolio of skills and other strengths are like the personal flotation device (PFD) in boating. They keep you afloat when you are in the water. In this environment, you can’t look to a company for your safety—certain not marquee names such as Baer Stearns, Lehman Brothers or Merrill. You are responsibility for your own safety. Make sure you have a PFD on and that it is zipped up tight.

What are some strategies people can use for job survival?

Shea: The book contains many tactics and strategies. We talk about teaming and leadership skills required in this environment. You need to be able to form and lead short-term teams and also to lead more from a personal power than mere position. Positions change. And followers also have to be prepared to step forward and lead. More personally, we cite research and practice concerning pacing and health. I can bear personal witness to the positive effects of a number of the tactics and strategies that we present.

Gunther: I think the willingness to try new things and fail is vital. In whitewater, you will not be perfect. You will be flipped over. Paddlers know this. Instead of trying to avoid flipping, they practice the Eskimo roll to come back up. They prepare for mistakes and gain the skills to recover quickly. Many of us go through our careers trying not to make any mistakes. We get very good at doing one thing, and we can do it flawlessly. This is called competence. But then we are surprised when the company turns us loose. We haven’t developed a life and skills that have value outside of the organization. You need to experiment, try new projects—maybe outside of work—that have the capacity to take you in new directions. In the book, we talk about how Kathleen Flinn, a Microsoft employee, reinvented herself as a chef and author after her job was cut and she found herself on the sidewalk with all her possessions in a box. Her hobby in cooking turned out to be the foundation for a new career. Keep your failures small, safe and inconspicuous if you like. But practice failing so you will know what to do when the bottom drops out. In this environment, it will.

I recently co-authored an article for Harvard Business Review on the topic of making mistakes. Since my business is writing, it was a bit of a gamble to do this without any guarantee it would be published or immediately returned. But the experiment worked and it was a wonderful experience that expanded my sense of what I can do. This book, itself, was quite different from my other projects, so it will be interesting to see what we learn. You have to experiment more in this environment. On the river, if you are not being flipped, you just aren’t playing hard enough.

Many people fear change. What is the best way to cope with change in the workplace? And how do people go from coping with change to actually enjoying and thriving in this situation?

Gunther: I think that is what our book is all about. Many people fear whitewater rivers, too, and with good reason. If you were plunge in without the skills or equipment—and mindset—for this environment, you can quickly find yourself under water. As a teenager, I watched a girl without a life jacket who was swept through a Class IV rapid on the New River in West Virginia. She wouldn’t be alive today if a kayaker hadn’t pulled her out. With the right skills and equipment, everything changes. The astounding thing about kayakers is that they go into rivers that scare other people, not to survive but to play! They find great surfing spots and holes where you can spin your boat around or put it up on its end. The faster the water, the more opportunities to play.

Shea: The same is true in changing environments. Your work changes constantly, hence you have more opportunities to do more things, take new assignments, gain more skills and move your career in different directions. Think about the times when you have learned the most—probably when things were changing. This environment can terrify, but you can’t give in to fear. Remember when Ernest Shackleton stood on the melting ice after losing his ship on the way to the South Pole. He and his men were certainly dead by any reasonable assessment. But instead of focusing on the fear, Shackleton worked the problem and collaborated with his men to bring them all back home safely.

This book is particularly timely because the country is facing a recession. What advice from this book can people take away and utilize once the economy picks up?

Gunther: In a downturn, more people recognize that they are in whitewater. But, as I noted above, change keeps coming—through good times and bad. This is the world we live in. You can’t ignore it or think that when the markets pick up it will all go away. Change is the only constant. Start with the mindset and the metaphors that we present and move on to the skills and tactics.

Shea: That’s what we mean by permanent whitewater.

What are some of your upcoming projects?

Shea: I’m working on a book on leading change in large organizations and one on leadership and the battle of Gettysburg.

Gunther: I’m working on a number of projects, including a book based on my article on "The Wisdom of Deliberate Mistakes." Greg and I also are discussing experiential programs related to the book—to take people out on real whitewater to experience it firsthand.

If the reader is only to remember one thing after reading this book, what should he or she take away?

Gunther: We live in a world of permanent whitewater. You can’t stop it. You ignore it at your peril. You can’t just paddle faster. So you better find a way to meet it. To survive, let alone to thrive, in this world requires different thinking and different actions.

Shea: Your real job is change. It doesn’t matter what you were hired to do. Therefore, if you can’t deal with change, your other work will prove largely irrelevant. This is not how most people think about their work. But you need to start doing so if you want to thrive in this environment.

Read the book review for Your Job Survival Guide: A Manuel for Thriving in Changehere.

Interview by Jessica Livingston, editor