Career Changing During or Just After a Recession

Sandi Lin, CEO of Skilljar, wrote a post on LinkedIn that caught my attention. She wrote about job-searching during two recessions (2002 and 2008).

In her post, she noted the lack of supply of jobs and the rise in demand by job-seekers. “In a downturn, not only are there 10x fewer jobs available, there are 10x more candidates, who are 10x more qualified for the position than you,” she warned.

It gave me pause for reflection. I started my career in the aftermath of a recession. The trough of the 1990s recession in Canada was said to have been in April 1992. The economy was in the early months of recovery as I began interviewing for my first co-op job in the fall of 1992, as a first-year student at the University of Waterloo (in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, the birthplace of an early form of smartphone called Blackberry). Competition was fierce for positions in the audit departments of the then-Big 6 accounting firms. We were told that not everyone would get a coveted audit job that counted towards our professional accounting designation. 

I managed to secure interviews with Deloitte & Touche and KPMG. I got off to the wrong start by missing the off-campus wine and cheese event hosted by Deloitte for its prospective candidates. Eighteen years old and interviewing for a professional role for the first time, I felt tense and outnumbered in the Deloitte interview as I was evaluated by not one person but two. I felt like I failed to impress in the KPMG interview. And to top it all off, my winter coat was stolen from the lobby coat rack.

I was shy and reserved back then. Too much time has passed for me to remember how I answered the interview questions and what set me apart. I had no exposure to professional work environments and no coaching nor mentoring from my parents due to their lack of experience in this domain. My older sister went as far as sharing her CV template, but that was it. 

Despite the tough economic environment, I received offers from both firms, joined Deloitte & Touche in January 1993, and got a new coat. Were it not for the co-operative work program at the University of Waterloo and the participation of accounting firms in on-campus recruitment, I might not have fared so well in the post-recession job market. It made a world of difference for someone like me.

In 1999, I moved to the UK on an international secondment with Deloitte and two years later, I was working in their corporate finance advisory team. It was the year of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centers in New York and the dot-com bust. There were lay-offs and several of my colleagues lost their jobs. It didn’t go unnoticed that many of them were women, across all levels of experience. Despite that, being at a multi-service professional services firm sheltered me from the effects of global security concerns and vaporware. As IPOs fell out of favour, my corporate finance team took a public company private. We advised on small and mid-sized management buyouts. As advisory work slowed, we were deployed on restructuring work. As dot-com busted, real estate boomed.

I had a background in auditing real estate investment companies, but my job at Deloitte Corporate Finance had a bit of a hedge because I worked on both real estate and private equity deals. In 2003, a couple of years after the dot-com bubble burst, I went long on real estate, so to speak. A former flatmate introduced me to a recruiter that specialized in real estate investment banking. I interviewed with a publicly-listed property company, a real estate private equity firm, the corporate finance team of an international real estate services firm, and an upstart real estate investment banking of the then-number 2 German bank, which was the team I ended up joining. I rode the wave of real estate lending and mortgage-backed securities until 2007. 

I took a career break starting at the end of 2007 until mid-2009 during which time I consulted for a former client and volunteered in the café of a community centre. In 2010, three years after the phrase “impact investing” was coined, I did pro bono work with an impact investment fund. I started an independent consulting firm so began my entrepreneurial journey at the intersection of impact investing and startups. 

The 2007-08 financial crisis and the Great Recession that followed were probably the toughest years to recover from. From 2007 to 2012, I wasn’t just job-searching, I was soul-searching. Writing this in 2020, part of me feels like I am still recovering from that time. I’ve never paused to reflect on what life really looked like for me during and after the Great Recession because I’ve been in survival and pursuit mode ever since then. 

In 2010, I cast a wide net and explored many different kinds of roles I could imagine myself doing, to try to figure out where to go next, what I’d enjoy doing, and where there was demand. The roles I interviewed for spanned a wide range, including head of business and finance for a progressive think tank, CEO for a social purpose real estate company, in-house corporate finance role for a Paris-based publicly-listed resources company, a role at a Dublin-based “bad bank” working out distressed loans. In the end, I embarked on a big adventure that meant relocating back to Canada, immigrating my then-boyfriend, now-husband, and accepting a role as an investment manager at a Canadian credit union. 

A job got me to Vancouver, but it was founding Pique Ventures, a boutique impact investment firm that anchored me to stay. Candidly, Pique has been bootstrapped through a wide variety of long and short consulting contracts. It was the wickedest lesson in life and business in all senses of the word. I sharpened my technical skills and forced me to hone my leadership skills. I learned all the things I didn’t know when I started my consulting firm in the UK – business models, marketing and sales, hiring and firing, innovation, and more.

One of the most valuable skills I discovered and am continuing to improve is how to find product-market-fit. Anytime you start something new or make a change, you do a version of finding product-market-fit, whether it’s launching a new product or service, raising capital, or finding a new job. In hindsight, I realize that I’ve been practising finding product-market-fit for years:

  • In 2002/03, when I left Deloitte and interviewed for jobs
  • In 2010, when I was interviewing for jobs
  • Launching Pique Ventures and finding investors for its first fund, Pique Fund
  • Most recently, in 2019 when I relocated to Toronto and interviewed for jobs

I’ve advised hundreds of entrepreneurs on raising capital and finding the right fit of investors is like finding product-market-fit, where their ventures are the product (or more specifically, the equity securities in the ventures are the product) and the investors are the capital market.

I’m not going to make a list of the Top 5 Lessons for Job-Seekers During a Recession, but certainly understanding the process, mindset, and skills needed to find product-market-fit are very useful in times of change, uncertainty, and discovery. 

Sandi Lin provided some thoughtful advice in her post: “Careers are long. Always treat people with respect. Practices like ghosting and badmouthing will follow you forever. If you generally believe in your job, company, leadership, mission, manager, and have earned respect in your role –  recognize that’s a wonderfully special and rare situation.” You may already have product-market-fit in the job where you are right now.

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