TAKE CONTROL OF YOUR CAREER Keeping your job has become a job in itself, as thousands of laid-off managers know too well. You can avoid joining them by making the right moves now.
By Kenneth Labich REPORTER ASSOCIATE Sara Hammes

(FORTUNE Magazine) – SO THEY STOPPED inviting you to the quarterly meeting, the one where they talk about everyone who isn't there. Then you got a new office, smaller than your last one and not on the floor where the big guys sit. You're pretty sure . you're not getting all the really choice memos anymore, and now they've given you a new deputy who makes about half your salary and looks sort of lean and hungry. The grim reaper of restructuring seems headed your way, my friend. Stick a fork in yourself: You're done. Bummer, but if it's any consolation, you've got plenty of company and will have still more. Employers are evaluating workers more ruthlessly than in the past, and the terms of the unwritten contract between employees and their company, changing for the past decade, have grown almost indecipherable. Says Robert L. Swain, a New York City consultant and outplacement specialist: ''Long range is now the end of the quarter. I am seeing a lot of very talented executives, with great skills and broad experience, who simply failed to recognize how impatient their bosses had become.'' You can't blame it all on restructuring. Rapid change in technology and business methods is also wiping out jobs with brutal swiftness. Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, an Emory University management professor, found startling results in a study he recently conducted of 300 mid-career executives in the financial services field. About 20% believed they lacked the skills to meet the expectations of their bosses, and another 75% replied they would probably be behind the curve within five years. How to survive this severe climatic change and avoid becoming a dinosaur? The answer is as simple as it is demanding. You've got to take control of your career and manage it. You are your own business. Listen to it again: You are your own business, and no one else is responsible for your development. You can't count on your employer to watch out for you, or a mentor to bring you along. All that is up to you now. The first step in taking hold of your career is to stand back and look hard at yourself. Your performance appraisal from the company probably doesn't tell you enough. Arrange to get some sort of feedback, formal or informal, from subordinates and peers. If you assess yourself thoroughly, with sufficient input from others, you may be surprised at the results. Learning International, a Stamford, Connecticut, management-training firm, recently studied 900 managers from a variety of industries, in the process soliciting the opinions of their peers, supervisors, and subordinates. Most of the managers gave themselves high marks on such strategic tasks as understanding and communicating the company's goals; the people they worked with agreed, by and large. But anomalies cropped up when it came to grading the managers on accomplishing those goals -- getting their unit committed to the job, figuring out how to boost productivity, creating a positive work environment. They thought they were doing fine, but nobody else did. Such self-delusion can be poison to a career, and the sooner you find out your real pluses and minuses the better. As an example of how to do this, consider the MBA candidates at Southern Methodist University's business school. They take a variety of self-assessment seminars and tests, supplemented by reviews from where they used to work, that delve into everything from performance on the job to what sort of lifestyle really makes them happy. The hope is that they can bend their careers in the right direction early on. At least some of the students are thoroughly pragmatic about applying the findings. Michelle Milam, a 26-year-old from Dallas, was surprised to learn that her former superiors, colleagues, and subordinates at Arthur Andersen, where she worked as a training consultant, rated her higher in most areas than she herself did. That told her she needed to work on her self-confidence before starting a new job after graduation in January. By thinking about her personal requirements, she concluded she would do best at a smaller company, or one that at least gives her a shot at taking entrepreneurial risks. She also realized she was unwilling to embark on a career that would keep her on the road, living out of suitcases most of the time. Says Milam: ''Now when I articulate what I'm looking for in my job search, it is much more in terms of the type of organization I want to work with, the culture, how they value their people. What are the long-term opportunities for me there? Do they promote women to top-level executive positions?'' ANOTHER crucial element of career management is recognizing just what stage of professional life you have reached. According to at least one schema posited by the experts, most people's careers divide into three stages, each with pitfalls and possibilities. In the first stage, which usually runs from your 20s into your middle to late 30s, the key is exposing yourself to as many varied managerial situations as possible, along the way assembling a repertory of basic skills. For decades the best place to put together such a portfolio has been at a large company with a lot of different divisions and a wide selection of potential mentors. A big outfit might also expose you to cutting- edge technology in your field, an essential requirement for younger managers. A rising star in manufacturing had better know all about the latest in systems technology, just as the young marketing whiz must learn where and how to find the best market research. Says Robert W. Slater, an Arlington, Texas, executive-search specialist: ''If you don't have your technical base by age 35, forget the whole thing and go sell real estate.'' Avoid overspecialization. You are not likely to get that smart if you spend your whole career learning to turn out the world's best damn socket wrench. You should arrange to be thrown every so often into completely new professional situations, there to try on as many different hats as possible. An engineer should make sales calls. Beyond simply acquiring more skills, you will also be working with new groups of people and finding out about more potential opportunities for advancement. Says Learning International President John Franco: ''The point is to start looking horizontally and demand a chance to get more exposure. The person who has had his ticket punched in various areas is bound to be more valuable.'' You walk a fine line here, because being a competent generalist is no longer good enough either. The ideal for someone in his mid-30s would be a T-shaped experience profile: a wide array of general managerial skills with at least one deep groove of expertise. A young vice president of operations at a large manufacturer, for example, might be a genius at putting together effective production systems and also well versed in marketing, corporate finance, engineering, and design. A giant company may still provide a superb postgraduate education these days, but the business of selecting the right sort of company has become a lot more complicated. The problem is identifying the kind of company that will permit you to get the experience you need in your career's early years. In this respect, Sonnenfeld sees U.S. corporations falling into four types, each with distinctive flaws and opportunities: -- What he calls the Baseball Team is based on fad, fashion, new technologies, and novelty. Companies in advertising, entertainment, investment banking, software, and biotech research often fit into this category. The plus for the young manager is that such firms tend to be receptive to new ideas and allow executives to move freely within the organization. The problem is you may be considered only as good as your last idea, and such companies are often too unstable to provide reliable managerial training. -- The Club encompasses organizations like utilities, government agencies, airlines, and banks, which tend to produce strong generalists. Their drawback is that they are often insular and don't provide enough specialized challenges. -- The Academy comprises manufacturers in electronics, pharmaceuticals, office products, automobiles, and consumer products. This type of company often provides much special training and turns out highly skilled professionals. Negatives: Career development is still often based on an old-style hierarchical model, and managers rarely get enough opportunity to move around within the company. -- The Fortress describes companies in rough-and-tumble fields such as publishing, hotels, retailing, textiles, and natural resources: Younger managers can learn to respond quickly to market forces, control costs, effect quick turnarounds. The problem -- a big one -- is that such companies too often respond precipitately to short-term crises, jerking their young managers around in the process. WHATEVER sort of company you start with, at some point your career has to pick up speed if you hope to get anywhere. By the time you reach this second stage, usually in your late 30s or early 40s, you must be a key player, attuned to your company's strategic goals and fully conversant with customer needs, new-product possibilities, and all the vagaries of your particular marketplace. It is no longer good enough for a manager reaching this passage to be largely inward-looking; you have to know not only how your company gets things done, but also what it ought to be doing. Says T. Quinn Spitzer, president and chief executive of the Princeton, New Jersey, management consulting firm Kepner Tregoe: ''You ought to be in the loop, in a position to ask the important questions. If you're not, you are falling further behind in the intellectual capital game.'' If you simply cannot get the proper seasoning at your company, you've got to summon the nerve to switch jobs. Mark Gray, 43, made the switch in 1989, moving from a top job at Pinnacle Systems, a video-processing company he helped launch, to join Sony of America as the president for sales and marketing of its business and professional group. Gray has been seeking new experiences throughout his career: He majored in electrical engineering as an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee, with no intention of pursuing engineering as a career, because he ''really needed to understand how things worked.'' He later moved through several jobs in search of challenges. Says Gray: ''I think sticking with one company will probably limit the scope of your experience, at least for someone who has a lot of ambition and a lot of confidence.'' You've also got to work on how you are perceived by others, making sure the people who count recognize your value. Let the folks on top know exactly what you can and do contribute to the enterprise. Simply slogging along and turning in a solid performance is no longer good enough. You've got to be seen as a star, someone with an ego strong enough to take on impossible jobs. Says Swain: ''You've got to show you can step in and deliver immediately. No company is looking for bench strength right now.'' You may think that bothering much with physical appearance is a waste of time when results are what count, but the experts counsel otherwise. Make sure you look like someone on the way up. Lester Minsuk and Phyllis Macklin, outplacement specialists in Princeton, New Jersey, advise clients to dress like their boss's boss. They also stress that compromises with your natural inclinations may be necessary. They persuaded an unemployed client, a former president of a chemical company, to get rid of his beloved, battered old briefcase, and use Grecian Formula to hide his prematurely gray hair. They told another executive that he would have to lose his Swatch and start wearing a grown-up timepiece if he wanted to be taken seriously. Their advice to ambitious female executives: Tone down the makeup and go for a look of simple elegance. Says Macklin: ''You don't see a lot of women with big hair get senior positions. You've got to remember you are a product, and you need to be packaged.'' Most people reach their career peak in their late 40s or early 50s. There are, after all, only so many senior management jobs around, and most of us will end up on some lower rung. Your goal during this third and last stage is to maintain your grip until you decide it's time to let go. To remain a valued and productive member of the team until retirement, the first step is to recognize that your professional world may be changing fast. Ray Grassman, 52, now a plant manager with Reynolds & Reynolds, an information systems company in Dayton, freshened his skills throughout his career using education benefits provided by his longtime employer, Hillenbrand Industries, a diversified manufacturer in Batesville, Indiana. Grassman started out with Hillenbrand as an 18-year-old junior accountant and kept working toward his degree at various colleges while his company moved him around. He finally graduated from the University of Syracuse in 1983 at age 45. After moving back to the home office as director of budgets and materials, Grassman decided he wasn't going any further at Hillenbrand and set out to find a new job. That college degree he worked so hard to earn gave him the confidence to take the plunge. Says Grassman: ''Fortunately, I never got let go. But I felt that I needed to improve myself so I would be in a position to make a move if I ever got in that position.'' In assessing where you stand as a senior employee, look at yourself from the company's point of view. In the good old days the company elders may have taken into consideration your long years of service, your loyalty through the organization's good and bad times, your steadiness and dependability, even your financial obligations. No more. Now you've got to make the case that your experience is worth something, that you have actually learned some lessons during all those years in harness that make you still a valuable commodity, a problem solver. Gerald M. Sturman, chairman of a Greenwich, Connecticut, management- consultin g firm called the Career Development Team, suggests that one sure way to let the bosses know you're still serious about your job is to confront them directly and ask them what they need from you. Sturman adds that people in the later years of their careers should make sure they focus on performance, the actual business challenges and responsibilities they face, and avoid whining about ephemera such as job titles or vanishing perks. Says he: ''If you relate success to symbols instead of real concerns, you are always going to be unhappy.'' Networking inside and outside the company is more important than ever for the older manager. View the process in the broadest terms, taking care to keep up good relations with all sorts of people in your industry. You may very well be looking for a job someday with someone who sits on the other side of your desk now. Treat those salespeople kindly if you're a buyer; you could be working alongside them before long. Older managers should work hard on their mentoring skills, making sure top % management understands they have wisdom to impart to the fledglings. Says David Blake, dean of the Southern Methodist University business school: ''People who develop those under them very well are going to be valued. Not only are they sending dozens of effective people into the company, they are also creating allies everywhere.'' If none of these tactics work and you increasingly see yourself as a potential target for elimination, then consider seizing control of the situation before the ax falls. Go to top management before they come to you and offer your services half-time or as a consultant. The bosses may very well be delighted to get your talents at a bargain price, and you'll have time to explore other opportunities. Such a step requires genuine mettle, which is among the most vital elements of successful career management. Harry Bernhard, an associate dean at Emory University's business school who worked as a senior IBM manager for 30 years, says he could often tell how far promising executives would rise in the company by watching their behavior when first exposed to meetings attended by top management. Says Bernhard: ''The only real difference between the winners and losers was how they handled fear and power.'' The best watchword for the new era may be an old one: courage.