Show me a woman 40 to 55 years old who’s been home with her kids, and I’ll bet you she’s had this thought at one point or the other: “Maybe I should go back to work.” And with the magic of my all-knowing, all-seeing swami-like brainpower, I’ll bet she’s also said, “Who’d hire someone like me, who’s gone 15 years without a pay check?”
It’s not that I’m able to read minds. I usually can’t. Rather, I am able to listen, and plenty of women are talking about how to transition back to work.
As a coach, I’ve been able to successfully help at-home moms find their way back meaningful and lucrative employment. Want to know how?
Know what you’re good at, and what you like to do. Just because you worked 70 hours a week as a partner in a law firm, doesn’t mean you have to do that now. Many former highly skilled women forecast ahead and see a very black or white future, when it comes to going back to work. “I have to go back as a full-time partner or I can’t go back at all.” Not so, grasshopper. You are smarter and wiser than you were then. Just make an inventory of what was best of what you did in your job, and add in the things you like about what you’re doing now. There may be similarities, or eye-popping opportunities that arise from a crosshatch of your past and your present.
The gap won’t matter to people who know what you can do. Over 70% of jobs are filled by personal referral, so rely on your network of contacts — both from your professional days and from your at-home days. Let’s say you were a ferocious litigator who became a ferocious advocate for diversity in your children’s school. Perhaps you could go to a non-profit dedicated to diversity and offer your services. They might not need you full-time, but they might help you find your Bridge Job.
Love the beauty of the “Bridge Job”. The beauty of what I call the “Bridge Job” is that it’s often short-term, project-oriented, working for someone who knows you and has a specific need. Often the Bridge Job is just a means to an end — with the end being your next job. I recently coached a wonderful woman whose Bridge Job was in the Federal Government, working for a former boss. This position gave her a perch from which she could do good work, build her network, establish a salary level and get her self-confidence. I am pleased to announce that she recently left the government for a big, hot-shot job on Wall Street.
There was a time when I was a full-time mom, at home with my wonderful kids. Although I enjoyed my time in corporate America, and truly loved working at the White House, mothering my children was just about the best experience I ever had. But like a lot of women, at a certain point time and events collided, so I went back to work.
In some ways, I took an easy path — I re-started my consulting/coaching practice. And starting a business that reflects your own values, can be an excellent way to go forward. I am coaching several woman-owned small businesses as they grow and develop — and watching the institutionalization of things like flexibility and Bridge Jobs and openness is truly inspiring.
I am also coaching women who are taking the harder path: re-entering the corporate workplace. Their big fears? Who will hire someone with an “employment gap”? If they do get a job, will they have to work 70 hour weeks? Will they have flexibility? Will they have seniority?
Fortunately, the picture is beginning to shift for women re-entering the workforce. Sylvia Hewlett’s new book Off-Ramps and On-Ramps: Keeping Talented Women On The Road To Success (Harvard Business School Press), provides an excellent template for corporations and organizations to follow to ease the non-linear careers of women.
Attention all HR executives, recruiters and C-level folks who read this blog (and there are many of you): You need to get this book and take a long, hard look at the realities hiring futurists predict. Disqualifying candidates simply because they took time off to care for children, or elders, or their own health, eliminates a talented and vital portion of highly qualified individuals. Developing innovative ways to recruit, retain and support these people may just be the key to your long-term business success.
What Hewlett calls “The White Male Career Model”– continuous, goal-oriented movement; full time employment and office face time; ‘catching the wave’ of a big promotion in your 30s; primarily motivated by money — is falling by the wayside. I wrote about the differences between men and women a few weeks ago. If you recall, I suggested men are goal-oriented and women are experience-oriented in many aspects of life. Hewlett supports this idea with research that shows women — regardless of whether they have children or not — are more motivated by the connections they make in their work, and balance, than in monetary rewards. “The Female Career Model” then, would include nonlinear careers; a mix of full/part-time/project work; an ability to pass up promotions selectively; a focus on connections and experience over money. Hewlett’s research shows that women really want to ‘give back’ in their work — and be fairly compensated, naturally. But waving more money in front of a woman to get her to comport to the White Male Career Model is going to be an attempt that fails.
What she needs, and values, is connection, flexibility, and a culture that drops the stigma surrounding ‘dropping out’ or ‘cutting back’.
Before I close, I want to tell you about a friend of mine who worked in politics and government. She was a very successful and well-regarded human resources executive. Then she married (a great guy) and they had children. My friend stepped back from her work and became an at-home mother. After the disputed 2000 election, she was called to “help” with the mountains of personnel paperwork piling up. It was a short-term position that ended up going something like 18 months. She went back to mothering. Then, she was approached about taking a big, full time job in the government, which she did. She called me one day and said, “Anyone can do this, Michele. It’s not hard. You don’t lose your skills — it all comes back!” Today, this friend of mine serves as one of the highest ranking women in the White House — she’s Anita McBride, former at-home mom, now Chief of Staff to the First Lady.
You can go back to work after a gap in your employment history. It’s possible. Target people who know you, and know what you can do. Aim for a Bridge Job as you transition from one stage of your life to another. Select people and organizations who prize flexibility and other values important to you.
And, remember what Anita said, “You don’t lose your skills — it all comes back!”