"There is more in your control than you might think."
About a year ago I planned an alumni event on networking. Led by an experienced career coach, we were given role-playing exercises on introducing ourselves as well as entering and exiting ongoing conversations in a social setting. Over the course of the evening one voice stood out for me. My radar went up. I knew those questions, that doubt. She was a relauncher. After the session ended, I introduced myself, and I was right. She was a human rights lawyer volunteering for a refugee NGO and wanted to know how she should introduce herself if she was not being paid. I was flabbergasted. All I heard was “international human rights lawyer.” She injected the doubt.
How often, I wonder, do relaunchers talk themselves out of opportunities without ever trying? While statistics exist on the number of those returning to the workforce after a career break, precious little is known about those who do not return. Is the decision not to return by choice? What of all that lost capacity?
In my own reentry story, I confronted voices of doubt. Adding my own to that chorus would have stopped me in my tracks. There is no single way to on-ramp. It is your story to write as you will. Nevertheless, one must acknowledge what reality dictates: our preferred end is not guaranteed. We will confront detours and closed doors just as we would in the absence of a nontraditional career path.
I address this article specifically to those who do not believe that reentry is possible. The absence of activity reinforces the negative feedback loop that returning is beyond the realm of possibility. However, when you cannot control the outcome, in order to maintain forward momentum, you can always control your own response and behavior. There is more in your control than you might think.
Expand your network.
While you are searching for your next employer, they are also looking for you. Make it as easy for them as possible. A STEM organization recently complained that it has reentry programs available, but could not find enough applicants.
Make sure you are meeting as many people as possible in the industry or firms where you want to be. Don’t limit your network to safe people who are where you are. Early in my reentry experience, I realized that my network was too heavily weighted towards other returnees.
At a minimum, join your alumni association(s) and a few key professional organizations in your industry. You will gain access to vital information on trends and developments in your field. Moreover, firms increasingly rely on referrals from current and former employees to fill open positions. An employee of a target organization is in the best position to give you a realistic point of view of their firm. An employee may also be in the best position to give internal recruiters an idea of whether you are a good fit for the firm.
While basic, it bears repeating: purchase professionally printed business cards with your name, email address and mobile phone number. Keep a few on you at all times. You never know whom you might meet.
Develop an elevator pitch and practice it. Think of three important things you want someone to remember about you. Determine your personal brand and be consistent. What is your unique value proposition? What differentiates you from others? You want them to say: “I remember that person. S/He’s the x, y, and z.” This will evolve over time as you gain experience and insights to refine your message. You should begin to incorporate the terms and issues important to hiring managers in your target firms.
Explore, investigate, research, and prepare.
You are an outsider in need of inside information. You need to clarify your best point of reentry and understand how the market views your skills. You need to understand the risks that would prevent a potential employer from considering your candidacy. You need to practice interviewing.
Conducting informational interviews is the most critical data collecting activity you can undertake. When approached correctly, these one-on-one meetings will help you to obtain personalized feedback, direction, an insider’s perspective, industry lingo, and ideas.
Do not expect the insider to do all the work. You must prepare. Consider why you want to meet this person and the information you would like to obtain from the meeting. Research the individual and the firm before the meeting.
Tailor your questions specifically to that individual, firm, and industry. At a minimum, ask the insider: Who succeeds or fails in this environment? What was your career trajectory? What professional organizations or periodicals do you recommend? Is there anyone else whom you think I should meet? Follow up with a thank-you note and send periodic (meaningful) updates.
You are exploring. Initial meetings may be more challenging, but as you gain experience and clarity on your goals, such meetings will likely become less fraught. For this reason, it is also best to prioritize contacts within your target firms. Meeting junior staff may be more useful early in the information gathering process. Save hiring managers and senior executives for when your message and targets are more refined.
Informational interviews need not be formal. An informal invitation for coffee or drinks can be low risk and pleasant for both. (I often had to remind myself to breathe and enjoy the process of meeting such generous and fascinating people.) As I progressed to identifying target firms, however, it became increasingly important to visit the office for a “pre-interview” assessment of the environment. Be flexible, though. Often a quick call may be all your insider can spare.
In the interim, continually focus on skills development. In order to be conversant on current issues, you must read industry periodicals. Get to know your industry and target organizations by setting Google or Apple News alerts for people, firms, and issues of interest. Update your professional skills with training and certification.
At this moment, no one knows you exist or what you have to offer. Rectify that. Now.
Find the thin end of the wedge by volunteering or contracting to obtain immediate work experience. If the opportunity fits within your short-term goals, regard it as the first of many evolutionary steps. Initially at least, substantive experience trumps salary.
Set up a skeletal LinkedIn profile with basic information, e.g., name, geographical areas, industry, employers, and education. Dates are optional, again only initially. Do not allow the conundrum of explaining your break to keep you away from LinkedIn. Focus on these basic biographical facts. You can add detail as you continually refine your narrative through networking and informational interviewing.
Use social media, but be sure to sanitize your online footprint. Consider whether your photographs, postings, or comments are in line with your professional image.
Hold yourself to account. Schedule at least one event per week. Stretch beyond what is comfortable. Challenge yourself to take the most difficult step. Go anyway. Say yes even though it might not appear to be useful. I have attended many events where I left saying “that was a waste of time,” only to learn later on that they were not. No effort is ever wasted. Take the extra step.
Relaunching is a process, not an event. You are constantly learning from every interaction (or lack thereof). The objective is to clarify your goals, which will ultimately help you to articulate your value proposition with clarity and confidence. Which version of your pitch worked best? Is your networking path effective in helping you to meet the right people in your target industry or firms? Are you hearing similar questions from your informational interviews, e.g., are you being asked to explain the same aspect of your professional background? Does your response raise more questions than it answers?
Beware of Job’s Comforters.
Eliminate Job’s comforters, friends who appear to be helpful but instead are deceptively draining and discouraging. However, you cannot ignore reality. Painful truths must be confronted and addressed head on. You may find yourself temporarily overqualified and underpaid. The term “peer group” may lose all meaning. What you must ignore are voices that discourage you from even trying.
You are far from alone. Seek support. Find an experienced career coach who specializes in reentry or in your field. Enlist trusted friends and family members as cheerleaders. There is an enormous amount of research available on reentry. With a growing global reputation, iRelaunch offers a constellation of resources, including the annual conference, books, coaching circles, and notice of reentry programs in law, STEM, consulting, and financial services. The iRelaunch LinkedIn group is active and well-informed, with kindred spirits and fellow-travelers fielding questions and sharing vital information to encourage you along your way.
Nothing I have discussed is new or revolutionary. I reiterate the basics to make a point. There is nothing stopping you from re-entering the workforce. While you may have to endure detours or even closed doors, opportunities do exist. Where they do not exist, it is within your power to make your own opportunities.
Consider the fact that the only difference between returning and not returning may well be a belief in your own ability. Belief reinforces choices and behavior.
Someone out there needs your skills. It is your responsibility to find them.