For all of the competitive realities in today’s world of work, paradoxically there are a few silver linings when it comes to reclaiming one’s foothold on the rugged “career jungle gym.” One of these is a growing acceptance and formalization of programs and opportunities around career “relaunching”—the term for resuming one’s career following an extended break from the workforce.
Earlier this month, I had the privilege of attending The iRelaunch Return-to-Work Conference at Columbia University in NYC on behalf of Darden’s Alumni Career Services. This full day program was attended by several hundred prospective relaunchers, many of whom were just beginning to consider the big step of returning to work. The content rich program featured Jeffrey S. Brodsky, CHRO, from Morgan Stanley as the opening speaker, Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO and co-founder of iRelaunch as the keynote speaker, a morning panel discussion on “Relaunching Outside of Corporate: Social Enterprise, Education, Startups, Angel Investing, and as an Entrepreneur,” as well as a lunch panel discussion on the topic of returning professional internship programs and an afternoon panel of employers sharing job search advice.
As I talked with conference attendees throughout the day, I listened to their personal stories and was struck by some common threads. Most were women, and many had stepped out of the workforce for family related reasons—usually to care for their young children or a relative when juggling the demands of family and a challenging career were no longer a tenable situation. For many, the decision to step out of their careers was emotional and not lightly made. Most exuded an intensity for approaching whatever they do—whether being fully present for their family or making contributions in their professional work—with focus and excellence. I am pleased to note that Darden and other UVa alumni were among the conference attendees.
As a career and executive coach I have been an advisor in many relaunching journeys. From early-2008 through 2010 when the vagaries of the Great Recession were wreaking havoc on the careers of millions of Americans, many of my clients included senior level financial services and corporate staff professionals who experienced protracted job searches of up to two years. As the end of their unemployment and health benefits loomed, I sometimes found myself also sitting across the counseling table from their spouse. She typically had earned a graduate degree and had several years of earlier professional work experience and had stopped out for many years to raise children. In several of these scenarios, it would be her return to work that would recover the much needed family health benefits and keep the family financially buoyed while her partner hit the re-set button on his own career.
It was sometime in mid-2008 when I happened across the book, “Back on the Career Track: A Guide for Stay-at-Home Moms Who Want to Return to Work,” by Carol Fishman Cohen and iRelaunch co-founder, Vivian Steir Rabin, in the career section of my local Barnes & Noble. Since then, it has been a part of my resource library of career coaching staples. In particular, Chapter 8, “Inspirational Relaunchers” (by now dog-eared), has been a tremendous resource for my relaunching clients. Who cannot be imbued with a renewed sense of possibility after reading the relaunch journey of retired Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor? Since then, Carol has continued to contribute thought leadership to the career management field and has grown iRelaunch to new heights. Among other initiatives, iRelaunch has cultivated partnerships with premier employers across several business sectors that now offer formal “returnship” programs for qualified relaunchers. As the relaunching movement has gained momentum, iRelaunch has also developed in-person and virtual “return-to-work” boot camps that address strategy, marketing materials and technical upskilling.
For Darden alumni who find themselves ready to return to work after a gap of a few to several years, the following advice will be helpful:
- Get clear on your value proposition. This is the intersection of where your background (experience+ability+skills) overlaps with your interests. Discovering this may be aided by taking some assessments and getting guidance from an experienced career coach. This step is critical to developing clear messaging for your search.
- Focus on intersections where your value propositions will solve employers’ problems. If what you currently have to offer is not in demand, your career relaunch will be frustrating. Educate yourself on marketplace trends and emerging jobs in your target industry by reading professional journals, business publications and attending professional meetings. Have frequent informational conversations with your network contacts to help you identify opportunities.
- Address any skill gaps that might become obstacles. The technical skills needed to compete in today’s world of work continue to evolve at a dizzying pace. Assess technical skills and knowledge you need to update, and seek training and credentialing to close those gaps.
- Develop your personal board of job search advisors. This will increase your accountability and keep you moving forward. Choose advisors whose advice you respect and who will be honest with you.
- Be realistic and stay resilient! Develop realistic expectations. It is rare that I have coached a relauncher who hasn’t had to take a step back to restart her career. The good news is that most relaunchers are so energized by their return to work, that they quickly succeed in regaining momentum in their career trajectory.
Shelby Olson, Interim Director of Alumni Career Services, The Armstrong Center for Alumni Career Services, University of Virginia Darden School of Business.