Career Switching

Taking a Career Break? Here’s What You Need to Know

stock_businesswoman5It is a fantasy of many corporate women: to take a hiatus from the daily grind of meetings, deadlines and cutthroat competition to raise children, care for an ailing loved one or simply pursue other opportunities and dreams. It can — and has — been done.

“Stepping out” of the workforce is a reality for many corporate women. But it’s not to be decided or acted upon lightly. Based on a Wharton Center for Leadership and Change study, “Back in the Game: Returning to Business After a Hiatus,” women considering taking extended time off must plan carefully before and during the hiatus, as well as for the “stepping back in.”

The first step is recognizing that leaving the workforce is serious, says Monica McGrath, an adjunct assistant professor at the Wharton School of Business and executive coach who co-authored the study. Many of the study participants women in upper and middle management were not prepared for their hiatus, she explains. “They either didn’t expect they would run into difficulty upon reentry or maybe they never anticipated they would step out,” McGrath says. “They are very strategic about planning when they are in the active working phase of their careers, but they thought [the hiatus] would be a little blip on the radar screen. For many of them, it turned out to be long blip.”

Planning to Step Out

So how do you plan for that blip, however long it turns out to be? Consider how you will stay connected to your industry and/or function while you are gone, advises Mary Gross, a director with Merrill Lynch Investment Managers and co-author of the study, which was made possible with support from the Forté Foundation. Women must ask themselves the question, “What kinds of things am I going to need or want to do while I’m out?” she says. “The key is to plan how you’re going to stay at least somewhat connected and keep your network.”

That means securing daycare for your children or taking care of other obstacles so you can attend professional association meetings and/or conferences, Gross says. This is crucial because when it comes time to return, she adds, “Most women who are successful at finding a job are successful at keeping their network.”

“Structure your time before you leave,” recommends Marla Driscoll, a consultant and third co-author of the study. “Perhaps you can contract with your current employer on some projects or volunteer with a professional organization. This will keep you fresh and productive,” she explains. “Don’t just drop out and expect to easily drop back in,” Driscoll adds. Getting an agreement in writing especially if you plan to return to your current place of business can help the process as well, Driscoll advises. “It’s much easier to commit in people’s minds when they see it in writing.”

“Draw on your negotiating skills when informing your employer of your decision,” says Rita W. Stevens, a chemical engineer who took part in the study. In 1988 when she gave birth to her first son, all that was available to her was six weeks of disability and then returning to work full-time. “As a new parent, you don’t really know what you’re facing, but to me, that seemed unacceptable in terms of being able to take care of my child,” she remembers. So when having her second son in 1991, Stevens negotiated a new deal: she would work part-time, i.e. 60 percent of her hours. It worked for nine years. “I knew what I needed,” she says simply, adding that the new structure was “phenomenal in terms of balance and very successful.”

Time Out

You’ve made the decision, you’ve planned your time and you negotiated with your employer. How do you make the most of this hiatus? The study authors agree it is crucial to keep up with your network and stay up-to-date in your industry, including the technology and new developments. Attending professional functions and conferences is one way to accomplish this.

Another is to find some mentors, says McGrath. “If they’re actively involved in their job, they need to start looking around the organization for people who would likely support them in developing opportunities with some contract or project work,” she says.

Stevens, too, stresses the value of a mentor. Her boss’s boss helped her come up with her plan for stepping out, testing the assumptions she had about the company. “You really are in control in this,” she says she learned. “You assume, `These are the only paths available,’ but having a strong mentor can open up your options.”

During your time out, figure out your goals for returning, says Driscoll. Ask yourself: what kind of company or industry do you want to work for? Were you happy in your previous function or do you want to try a new position or industry? If so, do you need more training? Explore creative options as well, she adds. “Some women have used this time to say, `I’m going to go out and do something on my own, start my own business,’” Driscoll says. “Many respondents did that and are very happy with that choice.”

To stay sharp during the opt-out period, many study participants did volunteer work, taught a class, worked on an industry newsletter or participated in other activities that exercised their organizational and managerial skills. All of those experiences can translate onto you resume, says Driscoll. “It’s finding the right balance that will demonstrate to future employers, `I didn’t check out — I stayed involved.’”

Gross mentions one survey participant who, during her opt-out, included on her resume that she had been CEO of her own company. She used her last name as part of the “company name” and listed all the skills she gained such as managing a budget and scheduling travel. “She did a great job articulating all the things she did with her time while she was out instead of having a gap in her resume,” Gross says. That approach most likely will not work with most corporate institutions but it proves that women are, in fact, developing skills outside the workforce that can work within it, she adds. And for some companies, “advertising” that may work, Gross explains. “With the right creative, innovative company, think about what impact that could have,” she says. “That creativity could be a real selling point.”

Women are more successful returning to the workforce when they use the time out building skills and then framing them in such a way that proves they are still marketable, Gross adds. Volunteering in your child’s classroom, coaching soccer —“think about the skills it takes for you to do that,” she says, “and be able to articulate those in ways that will resonate with someone who is hiring you.”

Coming Back

Reentering the workforce is challenging and women must be ready to accept that, the study authors say. If you are not returning to your previous company, approach the return with an open mind and recognize that it may take a while to find another job. Talk to other women to keep ideas as well as feelings open, advises McGrath.

“Women need to recognize they are going to run into obstacles when they are trying to come back in and must find ways to support themselves through interaction with women who’ve already done it and been successful. Otherwise, it starts to become a very negative experience,” she says. “Find people who can help you engage in conversation that allows you to get clear… why you want to come back and how what you did when you stepped out mattered. That’s the kind of conversation women need to have with one another to get prepared for the obstacles they will find.”

Above all, be confident in your decision. “If a woman isn’t confident about the choice she made, that will come through in interviews,” Driscoll explains. “She really needs to work on her spin just as she would if she was changing jobs.”

Six months after she returned to full-time work in 2000, Stevens started a two-year weekend MBA program at Wharton. Her business had restructured and she realized it was vital for her to prove to her employer that she was focused on her career. “It was absolutely nuts going from working a reduced schedule to working full-time and going to school full-time,” Stevens says. “But you just say, `This is what I need to do to fully re-engage and to obtain the kind of work I want in the future.”

Like Stevens and the other study participants, you can continue to work even if you decide to step out. The key is planning, staying realistic, and recognizing you are making the right choice for yourself. “You have to show people what’s possible,” Stevens says. “Women need to realize they can be in control.”

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