It’s no easy feat to return to the workforce after a hiatus of 10 years or more. Senior-level resumes, top educational credentials and diverse life experiences don’t magically reopen doors—they just start what can often be frustrating and difficult conversations.
For 10 years I helped women return to the workforce—and I found that those who were most successful put their egos aside and accepted the fact that they would need to ramp back up again in terms of title, responsibility and compensation.
My educated guess is that this story of a Connecticut woman’s return to work will have that happy ending. From this interview you’ll see how her job search tenacity, pragmatic attitude, creative thinking and willingness to start over again is reaping personal and professional rewards.
After earning an MBA from a top 10 university and rising to the SVP level of a Fortune 500 company you completely left the workforce in 1998 to be with your family. Following a 14-year hiatus, you’re back on the work train. You just returned to part-time work at an online firm offering job search resources. At what point during that hiatus did you really start itching to get back to work?
It’s not so much that I was simply itching to return to work. It was more a matter of a “perfect storm” in my life — economics drove part of my return and frustrations with the volunteering process sealed it. Despite the fact that I was volunteering for great causes, there were often massive and uncontrollable hours and less than committed co-volunteers. I wanted to apply my talents in a new context and needed/wanted to bring home a paycheck for all my time and effort.
How do you think all that “mega-volunteer” work helped you transition back to work?
The volunteer work made me appreciate the value of co-workers who are serious, equally committed and share the same work values. I have to say though, while I hoped my volunteer work would keep my skills sharp, 14 years out of the work force left me way behind on the technology curve. That’s been a huge area of catch-up for me. Technology aside, being able to present quantifiable volunteer achievements on my resume really caught the eye of prospective employers.
Like many returning professional women, you searched a long time for flexible work close to home. That’s a tall order especially in a difficult job market. Now you’ve been lucky to find the flexible work, but it requires a more than one hour commute into New York City. Did you find after looking in earnest for several years you had to compromise more or were you less concerned about the commute because it was the “right” opportunity?
Finding the right part-time opportunity with a company that was ok with me working from home a day or two a week made a huge difference. My employer’s flexibility makes the commute (three days a week) manageable. Loving what I do helps, too. I’m willing to compromise on my “ideal” situation because I have the chance to re-define myself professionally and leverage a core strength — writing.
You said that your current position was hard won. Initially you applied for an executive search research position via the company’s web site, and you were not chosen. You were so interested in the company that you pitched the CEO “relentlessly” for project work, and she eventually hired you on that basis. Why do you think you weren’t hired in the first place? Do you think the CEO was concerned about your time out of the workforce?
I did not have prior executive search related experience, but I knew I was a good fit for the firm from general skills/personality perspectives. I went through a full round of interviews and follow up calls, but I think management struggled with my lack of specifically related experience and my corporate background. I know they were thinking, “can she make it in a start up environment?” All that said, I never felt that my time out of the work force was an obstacle for this employer.
So many people are afraid to be overly assertive in their job search. Now more than ever, though, job seekers need to be strategic and persistent. What was the nature of your “relentless” pitch to the CEO?
I felt I really clicked with the CEO, and when I sensed they weren’t going to offer me the job, I wrote to her suggesting some specific areas I could add value on a project basis. I’d gotten a sense of the company’s top of mind concerns through the interview process. (Start-ups are typically long on ideas and working on the NEXT, but chronically short on hands to deliver.) Fortunately, the CEO is a risk taker and she had a pressing project need, so she hired me to work on a project basis for two months. It wasn’t anything I had proposed, but it didn’t matter: it got me in the door.
I’ve often told returning professional women that they need to put their egos aside and realize they may have to start at a level much lower than the one they left behind. I always say that their ramp up period will probably be pretty short–given their life and work experience and the fact that they’ve continued to develop business skills through volunteer work. How long before the company hired you on a permanent part-time basis?
The CEO hired me at the end of the two-month project on a permanent part-time basis. I was ecstatic. The money isn’t much to write home about (I haven’t been paid on an hourly basis since college), but it’s such a great chance to redefine myself professionally in a cutting edge sector working with bright, creative, hard working, committed people. Best of all, I’m bringing home a paycheck and balancing my personal life.
What’s been the hardest part of your ramp-up?
As I mentioned before, technical skills have been the biggest challenge of reentering the work force. I work with web site designers/developers. On the positive side, my lack of tech savvy makes me the perfect guinea pig for testing and evaluating new products and services my firm is developing. Every cloud has a silver lining!
Because you’re in a business that attracts young people, you’re old enough to be the mother of most of your colleagues. Your paycheck is a fraction of what you earned previously. Would you advise your female colleagues to follow a different career path than you chose?
Women have to follow their hearts. There’s nothing worse than feeling stuck on a work treadmill and feeling like there’s no escape. I know—I’ve been there. Sometimes you have to clear the decks—like I did–to give yourself the space you need to make a good next step decision. And whether you take a short hiatus or one that was as long as mine, don’t be afraid to try something really different when you go back to work. If it’s not right, just move on to the next. The wonderful thing about our humanness is our capacity for reinvention. —KAS
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