Today we welcome Jana Toner, Senior Vice President with American Corporate Partners, which is dedicated to assisting US veterans and active-duty military spouses in finding rewarding careers. Based in Washington DC, Jana has over 20 years’ experience in the private and public sectors, including working in two White House administrations. She took an eight-year career break to care for her children. In this episode, we speak with Jana about what steps she did during her relaunch to keep her “toe in” and relaunch back into a public service role in government.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch the podcast where we discuss return to work strategies, advice, and success stories. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host. Before we get started, I want to remind our listeners to sign up on the iRelaunch Job Board if you are actively job seeking right now, because that is where employers go specifically to look for and hire people who are coming back to work after a career break.
All onto our podcast for today. Today, we welcome Jana Toner, senior vice president with American Corporate Partners, which is dedicated to assisting US veterans and active duty military spouses in finding rewarding careers based in Washington DC. Jana has over 20 years of experience in the private and public sectors, including working in two White House administrations.
She took an eight year career break to care for her children, and we are going to talk about her career path and her relaunch. Jana, welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch.
Jana Toner: Thank you so much. I'm happy to be here. Thank you for having me.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. Can you start, Jana, by telling us a little bit about your background and what you did prior to your career break and what prompted you to take the career break?
Jana Toner: Yeah, absolutely. Again, happy to be here and we're really excited about having this conversation with you today because it was something, when I took my career break, it was something that I was a little nervous about. But now that I've relaunched and continued my career, it's something that I learned a lot from that process.
And you would tell anyone out there who is in a similar situation that they can do it a as well. My background is a little non-traditional in that I started my career after college in the private sector. I worked for a large corporation and it was a management training program. And then I decided to move into politics and into the public sector.
So I was a political appointee at the Department of Education and Department of Energy. And what's unusual about political appointees, Is that you serve at the pleasure of the president or the secretary. And so these jobs don't last forever. They have expiration dates and when your party loses, you are out of a job.
And it's rare that any political party would win three elections, presidential elections in a row. So in 2009, January of 2009, my job was ending. At the time I was the White House Liaison for the Department of Education. And what that means is I developed and maintained a political staffing plans for the agency plus their boards, and commissioned and worked with the White House on any events or issues that would require coordination.
So if you back to 2009, there was the Great Recession, right, that started in, I believe 2007. The economy was tanking through 2008, and coming out in 2009, there were no jobs in DC. If I wanted to stay in politics, it would be impossible because the other party had not only the White House, but both chambers of Congress.
And at home, I had a four-year-old and a one-year-old. Tired. My husband worked a lot as well and I was really thinking that I wanted to try to have another baby too. So we decided jointly that I was gonna take a break, raise the kids, help support him as he built out his law practice. And, looking back at the time too, I really would have liked to have found something part-time just to keep my toe in.
But it. I didn't really find it, I didn't really look for it. And, you can't find something that you're not looking for, but that's hindsight. So yeah.
Carol Fishman Cohen: That's great advice. we tell relaunchers at the beginning of their relaunch when they're trying to make the decision about whether to take that career break, that if they can keep a toe in the water that's usually very helpful.
Of course we have plenty of stories of the majority of our stories are people who did not do that and took a complete career break. We know that there are avenues to success, no matter what you decide, but we do hear in hindsight from relaunchers who are looking back that advice more often than not.
iRelaunch has been around since 2007, so we vividly remember that recession and how, how long it lasts. Technically I think it only lasted a couple of years, but when you really traced it, we didn't, it started, in the depths of it we're going into 2008, 2009. We didn't really emerge from it until 2013, it felt. So it was a long haul. Very different from the recessions right now. Alright, so that's super interesting. And was there a time at some point where you decided this is the right time for me to go back? Did it happen to coincide with anything like kids' ages or did an opportunity pop up?
What happened there on the other end of your career break?
Jana Toner: Yeah, so as you said at the beginning, I took an eight year break and I probably for about the last two years of it was ready to go back in and was starting to feel like it was time that maybe I should be doing something more, even though I loved my life at home and my time with the children.
But I was just feeling a little unsettled and every time I started to look at job postings, I would lose my nerve. I updated my resume, but I didn't really know how to talk about my career gap. I wasn't very comfortable with it and selling it and being competent about it. And that was a mistake on my part.
And when I would bring up the idea of going back to work with my friends the first question was, what do you wanna do? What would you do? And I didn't really know. So it was not an easy process for me. But I did know that I thought I wanted to go back. I wanted to do something, I wanted to restart my career.
And I would say, you have to start somewhere. You have to have a LinkedIn profile. You have to work on your resume. You have to scrub your social media, make sure that things look okay and start somewhere. And these things are a work in progress. You always can make changes. It shouldn't be stagnant, right?
It is a work in progress. And in the end. I relaunched quite easily and I don't like to use the word luck or fate because I'm a firm believer in you make your own luck, right? When I was a college athlete, we train all the time. So when it came to game time, you deliver, it doesn't come down to luck, right?
You're prepared for it, you know what you have to do. And I tried to use my career break to make sure that I had kept my network up, that I had stayed informed about what was happening in DC. So, when it came to my relaunch, I had that network. I had the skills, but my husband and I decided to go to dinner, and if you're familiar in DC an old town, which is not where we live and not a place we normally go, but we went to dinner there one night and I ran into a former colleague who I hadn't seen maybe five years. But we were connected on social media and I had commented on some of his posts and things like that.
And he saw me said hello, and he happened to be looking for talent. He was helping the new administration fill out their their staffing and I was solution to his problem. And that's how I got my shot. He was like, Jana's taking contact. Jana knows how to do the job. Jana should come back in.
And, that I think was a really, there were two important lessons there, right? We're solving someone's problem, they need talent, and we have it. And, that's how it made it easy for it to happen. And, again, the second lesson too is I didn't disappear in my break. I went to events.
I tried to remind people I was still around. I wasn't just at home, I was at home and still an active participant in the world around me. So he knew who I was, instantly made the connection and I had it, I started working in maybe three weeks, four weeks after that.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow. That's probably one that's probably the most smoothest relaunch story ever.
But I just wanna review some of the lessons there that you're highlighting because I'm thinking about how useful this advice is to someone who is early in their career and is anticipating a future career break and is trying to think about, what, how do I best position myself while I'm on career break to make my return to work smoother later?
So, first a couple of things. You talked about, your confidence being an issue initially and not sure about what you want to do. I'd say that's classic. You know, when we talk to relaunchers, I myself am a relauncher. I had an 11 year career break and, we have over a hundred thousand relaunchers currently in our community, and that doesn't count all the relaunchers that have passed through already. So I can tell you that I almost a hundred percent, if not a hundred percent of relaunchers will talk about confidence issues, no matter how accomplished or senior they were before their career break, it seems to impact all of us.
And this thought process about, thinking about what you wanna do all over again, in your case it's pretty interesting. You were on the right career path to begin with. We see people fall into these three categories. Some are like you, Jana, who are on the right career path to begin with, and returned almost exactly, what they left, or some of them loved what they were doing before, but there was something about it they can't really do in their life stage now. So they return to something related, but not the same thing. And then there are those of us who realize we were not on the right career path to begin with, and they relaunch in an entirely new direction.
I also, I was in financial analysis on Wall Street. I went back into financial analysis and investment firm. So, very similar. But it sounds like some of the things that you're talking about that you did, you said you stayed informed, you kept your network up. When you're saying, we like to get into specifics in our podcast.
So when you say you kept your network up, you mentioned that you, this particular former colleague you had commented on some posts on LinkedIn. Can you give us some detail and how you kept up with your network? Obviously that was one way, but were there other ways?
Jana Toner: Yes. Yeah, there were several ways.
So social media is one and all the different platforms, and making sure that I wasn't being, I was being true to my views and who I am as a person, but not thrown any bombs out there figuratively and in the social media space. That was a self-conscious effort on my part. And, following people that had who stayed in the workforce, who knew me and knew my experience and making sure that I was able to like some of their posts, comment on some of their posts and then put some of my own content out there as well.
So that was one channel. The second channel would be going out to events in DC it's a very social place. There's a lot of events around fundraisers or issues and saying yes to those things even though it's a pain to get a babysitter to make it down there, and to coordinate with my spouse's schedule, but you have to continue to be seen so people know that you're around.
So that's another pathway. I think, and then on, on the third path is you have to actually, again, stay informed. So for me, I find, politics and policy, public affairs, these are my hobbies. So it is very easy for me to make sure I was spending a couple hours a day, an hour a day reading the news, reading what people were talking about, how things had changed, so that, I could be an informed guest at these parties, at dinner parties, and out with friends so that I, knew what was happening and that I could know that I was being taken seriously and was not too far removed from the work life. And then something else, but my fourth path, which I is unique to me, is that I took up tennis as like an outlet for myself during my career break.
And, it was something that I was very passionate about and played a lot, and it opened up a whole new set of people that I never would've met. But, playing this game and meeting people at our tennis group, at different matches, other people who enjoyed tennis. And just again, a whole new set of people who got to know me through tennis.
And then when you're talking about going back to work or, now that I am back to work, being able to say, oh, now I'm working on veterans issues. Would love to talk to you about it further. So that was also very helpful.
Carol Fishman Cohen: All right. So there's a lot packed in there. I love this idea, networking through sports.
And probably, it wasn't like you thought I'm gonna go play tennis because that's gonna help my networking. It was because you went and did it for yourself, and that was a byproduct of it. And I was gonna ask you a question earlier, because you mentioned that you were a college athlete and just the mindset and mentality, did it sounds like some of that carried through a little bit. And I'm not sure about, was there something that you developed as an athlete that had to do with your forward thinking or perseverance or the way that you approached your job search that you think might have been different if you hadn't had that experience?
Jana Toner: Yeah, that's such an interesting question. I actually would say that with my job search I have been more timid than I ever would have been as an athlete. I usually took my lessons learned from competing in high school and in college and beyond in my job itself. And I wish that I would've taken that same fired enthusiasm, that I had have as an athlete into the job search.
But the job search can be it can be so negative, there's a lot of rejection and you can't take it personally, and it's a scary, it's a scary thing to go through that works out eventually, but it's not nec, it's not fun to go through in the moment. Certainly.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Can you just tell us what was the lapse of time between when you thought, you know what, I'm gonna get serious and organized about this and figure out about how I'm gonna get back to work, and when you ran into that colleague? Did that just happen very early on, or was there a period of time before that where things were less defined?
Jana Toner: Yeah, it was about two years, two years of me thinking I, I wanted to go back, but not knowing how to go back, not knowing how to relaunch myself, not knowing how to talk about it.
And so, when it finally was that opportunity at the end of the two year mark, it was something I, again, I had thought about, just hadn't had a lot of action, not, and not a lot of successful action on it.
Carol Fishman Cohen: All right, so I also want to just underscore that for our audience, because a lot of time relaunches take longer than we anticipate.
And we were talking earlier about how smooth this was, but, it, it disguises the, this two year period before this happenstance of running into the colleague. I just want to underscore that with our audience. And also, I was thinking about some of your comments, Jana, on staying up to date and how you are so interested, you're interested in policy and public affairs and politics, and that was something you would naturally gravitate to anyway. And I'm thinking, and also you're saying you have to be seen. I was talking about in the context of someone who is about to take a career break, but I also wanna speak to our relaunchers who are currently on career break. There's no reason why if you haven't been doing that, you can decide, I'm gonna start doing those things now.
So, just want to emphasize that piece of it. So, when you ran into this colleague and had this conversation, was the idea that you were on career break, was that even part of the conversation or was, were they thinking they remembered you from before? We have this whole concept of being frozen in time.
Yeah. did the career breaker even come up in the conversation?
Jana Toner: I don't remember. I do remember that it wasn't an issue, right? It was only an issue for me and how I felt about it. It was like, Jana knows exactly how to do this job, and I knew someone who could do the job. It was a perfect solution for him.
So I, I definitely think you shouldn't let that break hurt your self-confidence and you should be proud of it because pe again, people want, need to fulfill these jobs. They need talented people, and it didn't even occur to him to say that it would be an issue that I took a break.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah. the idea that he remembered you from before, we talk about this idea of being frozen in time and, even if we as relaunchers experience a diminished sense of self because we've been professionally disconnected, those ex-colleagues don't know anything about that. They only remember us as we were, and it's really a gift that happens, right?
So can you talk a little bit about, you said you started three weeks later, the first few weeks back on the job, or maybe the first few months or even the first year. How did that feel? Did you feel that there was an on-ramping period or did you just jump back in? What was it like then?
Jana Toner: Yeah, it was, so I was going into a new administration, and had to be staffed out. So if, think about any new administration, regardless of the political party, you have to fill 3,500 jobs, and in a very short period of time. So my first day it was, and first, and it was like jumping into the deep end.
There was no time to think about what's, how do I do this again? And I had that thought multiple times. How do I do this again? And, you have to start somewhere. It was, at the time it felt hard, but in hindsight, it wasn't hard. Thinking about how to write an email, it might have taken me a little bit longer to remember how to phrase things, how to use professional language versus emailing with my friends, how to organize myself and my time.
What needs to be done, what do I have time for? How many hours can I work today because I have a family at home and how am I gonna get it all done? So it, it doesn't, and again, I don't think it was visible to people outside of me. I think a lot of the turmoil or the uncomfortableness was inside of me that was not visible outside, for the most part. So I think that it's, it's one of those skills you fall back on. But I do think it helped for me to have stayed current and made that process a little bit easier. And I also knew what I didn't know, so I was able to go back and say, okay, I, maybe I don't know this particular issue that well anymore, so who can I call to talk to about it and ask those questions? So I know that I'm informed and I know what I'm looking for when I'm not looking for. Because I didn't step any into any issues because of my ignorance about it.
Carol Fishman Cohen: You're talking about something that, there's a name for this, the learning curve. I didn't know about this, but there's such a thing as a learning curve and there are four stages, and the first stage is you don't know what you don't know, but the second stage is when you find out what you don't know.
And it sounds like you got there pretty quickly and you already had in your mind a solution for yourself. So that's pretty interesting. I'm just thinking now for our relaunchers who go into public sector roles, and I know public sector is a big place and it's different, depending on who the employer is, but any advice about how to handle conversations about level or compensation when you're coming back into the workforce?
Jana Toner: Yes. There I have a lot of thoughts on this, and I think that for when you go into government, it is an almost an easier process because there are a lot of restrictions about how much people can make that are based on what you're, you've were paid previously. So, in my case, I was able to go in at the same level I had left eight years prior and with a cost of living increase.
So it didn't matter that I had that break. But it wasn't the same for everyone. In my, in that job, I was, I'd hired people and negotiated salary for people. And I came across many, mostly women who'd had career breaks, and when I was negotiating their salary, I knew what I couldn't do.
I did my best to get them to make up the difference from that time they left to what they could be paid now, but it wasn't always what, it never was what it would've been had they not taken a break. And I, so I think that it's important to remember when you're going to these negotiations, number one, you have to ask, you have to negotiate.
Women are not good about it. Talking about pay is hard. And you, again, you don't know if you don't ask, but sometimes the answer is no. And, you can't dig yourself in too much of a hole over it. You, in, in my case, when I was negotiating pay for others, I did the best I could, but I couldn't make things happen that weren't gonna happen.
And, and so I think making sure that you leave yourself room to have those conversations is Is my advice on pay.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Thank you. Yeah, cause we don't always talk to someone who's been on both sides of the table, in the same, at the same employer. Jana, can you tell us a little bit about what the transition was like at home when you went back to work with your two children who were probably still very young, I'm guessing?
Jana Toner: Yeah, so my youngest when I went back was five or six. And, it was, it was a process. It was a process. I had decided that, first I wasn't gonna try to do everything. I couldn't be there for everything. I couldn't do everything I had done when I wasn't working. And accepting that and deciding what was important to me, what was that I make sure it gets done and what were things that didn't need to happen or that I could outsource out. I wanted to spend time with my kids. I didn't wanna spend time at the grocery store. And I also, it was a family conversation saying that I can't be at everything, dad and I can't be at every sports event, but we'll do the best we can and we'll tag team and we'll be at a few things and we'll make it count.
And the kids were amazing about it, which is helpful. It worked because it was, again, a family conversation. And, my, my husband had to take on additional responsibilities as well. And, when I wasn't working and he was building up his practice, I felt like I had to do everything that I put on myself.
This was my job doing everything at home and, and when he had to take on more responsibilities at home, I, it really, I think, helped both of us because he could be around more, the kids saw it more and, he never complained. He had to start helping me with carpool in the morning and walking the dog, and it was all fine.
It was very, it was fine. I was worried that it was gonna be chaotic. It worked out, but, again, you have to let things go. There's no such thing as being perfect at everything. Don't try. And I didn't try. But it, I brought everybody into the process and we decided what was going to get done and then not get done.
And you have to make the most of that time, first thing in the morning, at the end of the day to be organized and working ahead.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Okay. I'm taking notes here. So you said, A. Let things go, B. Family conversations, make sure there's a lot of communication and, C. Being organized, especially at the beginning and the end of the day.
Okay. Audience. I've repeated that, especially for everyone's benefit, and I, but I think it's really, it's very straightforward and very good advice. Can you tell us, Jana, about what is American Corporate Partners ACP, and talk to us about how you made the transition from your White House role into the role that you have today.
Jana Toner: Sure. I love talking about ACP and I need to back up a little bit because, we talked about how I went back to my old job to start. And once I got in, I actually was promoted pretty quickly and after, after about 10 months, I had the opportunity to become the chief of staff to the Second Lady Karen Pence.
And I was in that job for three years, and that was an amazing opportunity that was, seven days a week every single day of the year. So when, and again, we've talked about this earlier, when the job, the danger in politics is that your job ends. My job ended in January of 2000 and, 21.
And I, had then a second career break again of about nine months. And to be able to again, think about, okay, now I'm back in the workforce. I wanna stay in the workforce. So how do I want to use this skillset and what do I want to do? And I took some time to work through that and, again, still keep thinking about keeping my career on track, my network in place, keeping my skillset set up. And, on the anniversary of September 11th, I was watching the news and I saw my now boss, the founder of ACP, and the vice chairman on the board were being interviewed about ACP, about this wonderful organization that helps veterans and spouses.
So I reached out. And, I had worked with them in the White House. They were one of my nonprofit partners on military and vet spouse and veteran issues. So I reached out to say, Hey, great job. And. Excellent timing on my part 'cause I said actually we want to expand our presence in DC, would love to talk to you about coming on board. And, and then have the chance to join ACP as a senior vice president, helping them expand their DC presence.
So, what ACP does, and I think this is something that you and I can both relate to, Carol, it's helping post 9/11 veterans and active duty military spouses finding meaningful and sustaining careers through mentorships. So we pair and mentor for free, with a veteran or spouse based on their career goals and based on experience to help them navigate this process.
Are you coming back from a break? Are you moving place to place and need and having a hard time maintaining a career, which is a big issue, as you know for our spouses, or are you transitioning out of the military and not able to really find that career or know what you're good at or what your worth is and how do you navigate it?
That's what we get to do is to help make that process a little bit easier and to help them see what their value is and how to talk about salary, how to talk about titles, and how to make it through that job search as easily as possible.
Carol Fishman Cohen: You know, we have, several military spouses on our team at iRelaunch, and one of them in particular when she was an active duty spouse, was a mentee in the ACP program and found it incredibly beneficial.
It's an amazing organization and I can see how inspired you must have been when you were seeing the leadership speak about it. And then you pursue that and had that conversation. And here you are. It's incredible. Jana, thank you so much. I wanted to wrap up our conversation by asking you the question we ask all of our podcast guests, and that is, what is your best piece of advice for our relauncher audience, even if it's something we have already talked about today?
Jana Toner: Absolutely. I have two. I hope you don't mind, but, I think, the first one is talking about imposter syndrome. You know, imposter syndrome, it's not a real thing, it's not a real illness, it's just a mindset. So don't let your insecurities or your self-doubt get in your way of success. And the second is, activate your network, accept help, find a mentor.
You know, it's hard to hear the truth sometimes, but I'd rather know so I can make adjustments, and see something, a different result, than do the same thing over and over again and not see anything, anything different.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Great advice. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Jana Toner: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.
Carol Fishman Cohen: And thanks for listening to 3,2,1 iRelaunch the podcast where we discuss return to work strategies, advice, and success stories. I'm Carol Fisherman Cohen, CEO and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host. One more reminder for our relaunchers to register on the I relaunchers Job Board so employers can see your background because they come to our Job Board when they're looking to hire people returning from career break. And be sure to go to iRelaunch.Com to take advantage of all the resources that we work hard to provide for all of you. Thanks for joining us.