5 Tips for a Successful Return After Taking a Pause in Your Career
One year ago, I made the choice to return to work after staying home for four years to be an advocate for my son who has cerebral palsy and to dabble as an entrepreneur. When I left the workforce, I was a confident, driven, and successful career woman, so I was surprised when I made the decision to return that I felt nervous and was second-guessing my abilities. But I knew I had to get past this and focus on what I had to offer instead of what I felt was lacking to be able to get past what most HR departments saw as a gap in my career.
Luckily, I found an opportunity with a company that values diverse skills and recognizes they can be acquired in many contexts, not simply in traditional jobs. My current employer, SapientRazorfish, is one of the organizations leading change with career return programs. Career returns are paid internships for talented professionals looking to refresh their careers and re-enter the workforce, and they are slowly popping up in companies in various industries.
Although the opportunity seemed perfect for me, the process to get the job, and then adjust to being back in the workforce was far from perfect. Like any job, I had to compete for the position and show my worth. The interviewers were gracious, but tough. They wanted to make sure I was relevant and could jump right back in without a ton of handholding and time. They questioned my skills and my plan to be job ready if I were hired. They treated it like any other interview, but perhaps were even a bit tougher as they needed to make sure I was ready, willing, and capable since they couldn’t assume that from my resume that dated back four years.
And even when I got the job I was nervous and worried I couldn’t keep up with my new colleagues who were living and breathing marketing and PR everyday. Now that I have succeeded in the transition, I have a few tips to share with others considering going back to work after a pause on how to have a successful return.
- Be sure you are ready to return. You made the choice to take a pause, and you should equally make a choice to return. Even if the circumstances for your return are not ideal (financial necessity), you can choose to be excited about a new chapter or choose to resent it. Having a positive attitude will make going to the office every day a lot easier.
- Be clear about what you want to return to. Transitioning back to work isn’t easy at first. Even if you came back by choice, rushing every morning, dealing with a commute, catching up on skills and technology, and trying to manage work and family life is a big change. Before you start your search, be clear about what you want to do and what works for your current situation. For me it was doing something I knew I was good at versus trying to enter in a new field—and having flexibility to work from home a couple days a week. Knowing what I wanted and being honest about it when interviewing (after I showed what value I could add in the role) made it much easier to find the right job.
- Be confident in your skills. Taking a career pause to care for your kids or an aging parent, or to pursue a passion or dream gives you a different perspective than someone who has never taken a length of time off. This diverse perspective should be an asset, not a hit against you on your resume. You need to be able to show how what you did while you were off translates to the role you are applying for. For me, staying home to care for my son was one of the hardest jobs of my life. I had to lobby for a little boy with special needs every day (and I still do.) The difficult conversations, negotiating, strategic planning, project and time-management skills, and creativity required to ensure my son was getting everything he needed and deserved to succeed were just as challenging as any job I had in the past.
- Stay engaged. Find ways to stay current in your industry and stay connected with your peers. For most jobs, you don’t have to be entrenched in it every day to stay on top of the knowledge and skills required to be effective at your job. But reading industry publications or having coffee with an old colleague helps you keep a finger on the pulse of your industry. If you work in a field where the pace of change is intense, take a few courses first to get back up to speed. It shows initiative, and someone with initiative is more likely to move up a steep learning curve relatively fast.
- Go in expecting a yes. This is something I did my entire career, including when it was time for reviews and promotions and when returning to work for four days a week. I always expected to get a yes. This didn’t mean I was arrogant and demanding, but I was confident in my skills and believed I could make a great impact on the company, and I could do that on my own terms. Belief has a sound and a voice, and I believed it was possible, which helped me come across confidently and show what I was worth when I spoke about my responsibilities.
Companies that offer career return programs are still uncommon, but you can apply the tips above to any company that values diverse perspectives. So do your research, talk to friends and family, and let them know you are looking, willing, and able. Networking and building relationships are always good for your career, especially when you are looking to return after taking a pause. And remember to always expect a yes, even if you get a few no’s along the way.
Ellen Kalis is public relations lead, Canada and the Midwest, at marketing consultancy SapientRazorfish.