What To Do When The Unthinkable Happens

Starting a business is always an act of optimism. I opened Searchlight in May 2001 which was in the middle of the dot-com bust. I reminded myself that summer is a slow time for all recruiting and that after Labor Day there would be an uptick. On a fine September day, all hell broke loose and my phone was ringing off the hook. My mother was screaming, asking where I was, and saying that a plane had hit the Trade Center. I spent the next few weeks in a haze, smelling death, spending my days reading the New York Times Portraits of Grief, and crying. Nothing happened and I would get calls from laid-off people whom I couldn’t help.

I canceled my New York Times delivery and stopped reading the obituaries. I researched. I no longer had jobs for any of the planners, client services and ad ops people whom I loved working with. I found a few clients who needed to generate revenue and connected them with sales and business development talent. Good salespeople are hard to find in both good times and in bad. That was what kept the lights on during those terribly bleak few months.

Years passed. I would still tear up when 9/11 was mentioned. I stayed in business though, and I knew things were better with the economy when all the marketing, media, and ad ops searches came back. 2005, 2006, 2007 were healthy and I was grateful for that. I hired a team and we found a nice cross-section of clients.

The fall of 2008 came. My anniversary was the day Bear Stearns failed. I was in a doctor’s office in October on a Monday with what I thought was a stomach virus. It turned out to be a bad appendix. I got a call that afternoon from a client putting a search on hold. By the end of the week, all of my searches were pulled. It was bad and I knew it. The Dow was at 6,500. I cried once. It was a disaster but nothing in my mind compared to the death and terror of 9/11. Everyone was safe and there was no smell of death in the air. I was getting lots of calls from potential candidates. People were laid off and everything froze for a few months. I wondered if the Great Recession would tip to a Great Depression.

I found a few pockets of business and managed to stay afloat. Gradually the world’s economy recovered and again I had a nice team and a healthy, well-diversified book of business.

New Challenges

I was absolutely unprepared and in denial about Covid-19. New York, as always, was pulsing and I was busy. The problem wasn’t finding business. It was what you would call a “candidate’s market.” Recent grads were asking for 70k and to my surprise were getting offers. My thought was that there would be a correction and pull back. The frothiness reminded me of 1999. But I kept hearing business was good. The profits were real and more and more people were hiring. I started seeing the news. Italy shut down and it didn’t seem quite real. I spoke with a partner, no, he hadn’t seen any changes in the economy. Then it was here; so many of my clients transitioned to working from home and my inbox filled with requests to put jobs on hold.

I’ve spent most of the last couple of weeks watching and worrying. Like 9/11 and the 2008 recession, Covid-19 brings its own unique circumstances along with the fear and dread. My son refers to it as an endless rainy day. My hope is that the world and New York come through this dark time as safe as possible. The sun will come out again and we will be more grateful for it. Again, I have to stop looking at The New York Times and try to help where I can. A few things I’ve learned from the economic downturns of the past:

  • The old adage is “Make hay while the sun shines,” but we can work on rainy days too—I’m still answering emails from people who have been laid off and I’ve directed my colleagues to keep building connections and scheduling calls. Companies will start hiring again.
  • If you’ve been laid off or furloughed, no doubt your concerns are focused on today—keeping the lights and internet on, educating your kids (who imagined homeschool would play such a large part in the next economic upheaval?), but try to carve out a little time to meditate on the future. What are your goals and desires? How have they changed since the last time you assessed? When I started Searchlight I wanted freedom; in 2008 I had a young child and I wanted flexibility; now, with a twelve-year-old and college on the horizon, stability has become important to me. Life is a marathon, not a sprint, we’re in this for the long haul and disruptions are an opportunity for change.

Resilience In the Face of Challenges

I’ve watched our economy and workforce rebuild itself a few times now, and I’ve seen in practice what history shows—every circumstance is unique, but in dire times people manage and are resilient. This is not comfortable and it is not fun, but it will end. We will see growth years.

And a few things I’m learning as we navigate the unique challenges brought by Covid-19:

  • Just as companies are responding to the need for many of us to work from home, they’re actively revamping the way they hire and onboard. The technology exists for many of us to be productive while sheltering-in and I anticipate that companies will emerge from this crisis with a greater sense of what we need to do in-person and which of those meetings really could have been a conference call.
  • As employees, we have the opportunity to assess the technologies and ways of working that have suddenly become critically important. Maybe you’ve learned that you love working from home, now is a great time to make sure you’re proficient in the systems you need, and to track your productivity so you can pitch your optimal working-situation long-term.
  • The impact is global; we aren’t alone. As we shelter-in, we are in danger of feeling isolated. We don’t have recourse to the usual break-rooms, coffee shops, and happy hours that create sounding boards for us to gauge the situation, but even apart we’re all in this together. As a nation we’ve made a sacrifice, separating ourselves for the greater good. Flattening the curve is a phenomenal feat of teamwork.

If you’ve found yourself in the position of looking for a career change or a new role, please contact Searchlight or view our job listings. If you’re looking for talent, contact us here.


Note: this article originally appeared on LinkedIn here.

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Kelly Herrick

Kelly Herrick is the founder of Searchlight, a digital recruitment firm specializing in media, advertising, and emerging technology. Originally from Texas, Kelly has made NY her home and lives with her husband, son, dog, and three cats in Westchester.