Disaster-proofing your career
By Anne Fisher

(FORTUNE Magazine) – WHERE SHE LIVES IN Los Angeles, says career coach and author Cynthia Shapiro, "everyone has an 'earthquake kit'" --typically a flashlight, water, and some non-perishable food. "Often people even keep one kit in the house and another in the car. And everyone has an evacuation plan. We're ready, or we think we are, in case the big one hits. But what amazes me is how few people spend the time or effort to disaster-proof their careers." The calamities she has in mind can't be blamed on Mother Nature, although they do often strike with the ghastly suddenness of an act of God. At the top of the list: getting fired with no warning. "It makes for tremendous anxiety," Shapiro notes. "In corporate America today, if you're not worried, you're not paying attention." Shapiro is a longtime human resources executive who has gone over to the other side, coaching beleaguered managers who've been sidelined or sacked and are struggling to recover. She has written a terrific book, Corporate Confidential: 50 Secrets Your Company Doesn't Want You to Know--and What to Do About Them (St. Martin's, $13.95), that's a must-read for anyone intent on managing career risk.

Of course, not all career risk is bad. Sometimes taking a chance is the ticket to advancement. What Shapiro focuses on is unintentional risk--those clueless moves people make that put their jobs in jeopardy without their realizing it. "Employers don't want to give you ammunition for a lawsuit, so it's not uncommon these days to be let go without anyone telling you the real reason why," says Shapiro. "That means you make the same mistakes all over again at a different company." Eeek. Moreover, she says, "doing all the right things--working harder and longer, learning new skills, and so on--won't necessarily make you disaster-proof."

So what will? First, figure out what the people above you really care about. "Forget the 'vision statement' and other propaganda. Instead, find the hidden agendas," she says. "Ignore what higher-ups say and watch what they do." Then do likewise. While you're at it, support your boss and make him look good. Antagonizing a boss is an invitation to catastrophe, but a surprising number of otherwise smart people just don't get it. "As soon as someone tells me, 'I hate my boss,' I know that person's days are numbered," says Shapiro. "You don't have to love your boss, but you'd better figure out a way to get along with him." The career you save will be your own.

The third precaution may be the toughest for some people to swallow. "Be publicly enthusiastic about the company, what it's doing, and your role in it," urges Shapiro. "Employers rarely get rid of cheerleaders. Even in a drastic layoff, their jobs are safe." What if the thrill is gone? Don't fake it. Start job hunting, because the odds are you may be leaving your current post soon anyway. "Companies today are running scared," Shapiro says. "They're looking for the kind of passion that creates a competitive edge." If you just haven't got it, to paraphrase the immortal words of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, you'd better walk before they make you run.