Clinical Assistant Professor of Management & Organizations; Director of Women's Leadership Programs
There are many reasons why people leave and reenter the workforce. Some may plan to take time off to raise a child or care for a parent with the goal of returning when that is no longer a full-time need. Others may opt out when they are disappointed with their career progress or when their income doesn’t offset the cost of childcare, only to realize, a few years after hitting pause, that they miss the stimulation and validation of work.
But regardless of the reasons, returning to work after an absence can be daunting, says Ellen Taaffe, a clinical assistant professor of leadership and director of Kellogg’s women’s leadership programs.
“I know so many people who have said, ‘I want to get back in,’ but the transition back seems monumental for many people,” Taaffe says. “That just grows the longer you step out.”
She recommends pushing through any anxieties or self-doubt and just getting started already. “It’s key to recognize the fear or reluctance but take action anyway,” she says.
Here are her suggestions for relaunching your career, no matter how long the hiatus.
As soon as you have determined that you want to reenter the paid workforce, you have to embrace the journey, highlighting—for yourself, and ultimately for potential employers—your strengths and interests, as well as the choices and trade-offs you have made.
“You want to share who you are, where you are in your career, and what you can offer—with no apology,” Taaffe says. “Understanding this and communicating it confidently to others takes reflection and courage.”
You’ve probably heard that it is important to identify transferable skills. This is absolutely correct, Taaffe confirms. In developing an effective story, it is critical to describe the skills you have picked up during your previous years in the workforce, as well as during your time away.
But, she cautions, this is not always an easy task. Many of the individuals she has coached have struggled to make these connections or see the value in them. One hint, should you find yourself flailing in this regard: find volunteer opportunities that strategically meet the interests, needs, and skill development you may need when you are ready to return. Worried that your Powerpoint, Salesforce, or Slack skills are rusty or nonexistent? Help plan a fundraiser for a local nonprofit, and get back up to speed. Take online training courses to close your technical gaps.
“Your volunteer work can be a meaningful thing to talk about in an interview when you attach it to skills needed in the role you seek,” she says.
Reentry is a moment where you have the opportunity to reflect on your career, how much you enjoyed what you used to do, and how much that job or industry has changed since you have been away. Sure, there is a good chance that, after a lot of soul-searching, you may end up in a job similar to your old one. But your reentry may not land you in your previous position or at the same level of seniority.
“You may have to recalibrate your expectations,” Taaffe says.
For some fictional inspiration, consider the title character in the television drama “The Good Wife,” a lawyer reentering the workforce after a 15-year hiatus. The character, Alicia Florrick, rejoins her old firm, but as a junior associate, and has to rebuild her career.
“In the first episode, she has a peer that’s 20 years younger,” Taaffe says. “She has to recalibrate how she feels, that somebody who was her peer is now running the company and she’s a junior associate. While she eventually makes partner and launches her own firm, she is definitely challenged by her first job back after time out. As someone relaunching, you have to brace yourself for some of that.”
Your relaunch is also a great time to consider a career pivot. Your old position or function might not be what it once was, or perhaps the industry has changed significantly, or your company has folded. This can become a time to focus on a job that aligns with your new interests.
“Try to evaluate your likelihood of going back into doing a similar thing and feeling fulfilled by it.”
“Maybe in the past you were a product developer, but what you‘ve found ten years later is that the role isn’t what it once was and may not be right for you at this stage,” Taaffe says. “Try to evaluate your likelihood of going back into doing a similar thing and feeling fulfilled by it. You’ve matured in other ways and seen through different projects in the meantime. And you’ve probably found new things that you’re passionate about. You have to listen to—and reflect on—that as well.”
Building—or reestablishing—a network is also critical for returnees. The contacts, clients, and colleagues you cultivated during your years in the workforce are likely the people who can appreciate your past experience and act as gateways to other opportunities.
Taaffe recommends being proactive about keeping that network up to date, ideally even before you are looking to reenter the workforce.
“Many times, your network turns into those people you worked with 10–20 years ago, who remember you back then, but they don’t know what you’ve done since,” says Taaffe. “Maybe you stayed close to them, but you have to tell them who you are now versus what they remember.” The best way to keep your network up to date is by scheduling informational interviews with your contacts—whether those are phone calls, emails, or in-person conversations.
These meetings give you the opportunity to reintroduce yourself to former work colleagues while learning about the contemporary workforce. Online platforms like LinkedIn can help returnees locate people in or adjacent to their networks, providing a comfortable structure within which to reach out and rekindle or begin connections.
But before you start requesting meetings from everyone, Taaffe recommends you put together a targeted list of contacts and companies and figure out what exactly you want to learn.
“‘I want to pick your brain’ needs to be followed by ‘on this topic,’ because people are busy and don’t want the pressure of being asked for a job,” she says. “A conversation that helps you learn and gain advice is more likely to be accepted and will still be a great contributor to your search.”
Telling your friends and family about your search, regardless of whether they are in the workforce, can also open up job leads. A former colleague of Taaffe’s relaunched into brand management for a CPG firm via a connection made through a friend who passed her resume along to the head of a small food manufacturer. They reached out to arrange a casual conversation, where the two discussed her past CPG experience and her knowledge of the gap in healthy allergen-free snacks. She is now the company’s marketing director.
Still feeling stuck?
One entry point might be a “returnship,” which is similar to an internship. Lasting anywhere from a few weeks to several months, these positions are specifically tailored for those coming back to work, with training, mentoring, and pay commensurate with the returnee’s experience.
Companies offering returnships range in scope and industry, from younger tech companies like GoDaddy and Coursera to industry leaders like JPMorgan Chase and PepsiCo.
“There’re so many companies that recognize the talent that’s out there,” Taaffe says. “They honor that idea of your relaunch being a work in progress, without judging your past choices.” People returning to the workforce can also take advantage of resources such as executive coaching and programs like Boston-based iRelaunch, which holds conferences that provide training, coaching, and a path to successfully relaunch.
“In some cases, people may not reenter into the same field or at the most senior level, but across the board, there’s more opportunity than ever before,” says Taaffe.