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Coming back with a bang – advice from the career break trenches

During a break we can recharge our intellectual capital, reorient our career path, and bring purpose and conviction to our second innings.

Image: Shutterstock

by Rini Dutta

Five years ago, my son was getting ready to start school. The whole family was involved in the preparations with excitement and joy. At that time, I was also nervously getting ready for my own second innings – coming back to work from a career break. To be honest, my feelings of anxiety and nervousness were much higher than those of my son.

Before the break, my career had been a breathless world of big brands, market launches, industry awards, and lots of travel. As I worked up from a rookie in Unilever to heading marketing for Titan Eye+, my life was all about my career – until I decided to have a baby and take a career break. My life changed significantly during my ‘break time’, deeply impacting the way I looked at my life and the role my career played in it.

Four years of motherhood were filled with wonder. I learnt a lot about pediatric health, nourishing recipes, and early learning theories and was enjoying my new role as ‘Mom’. Hence while I knew it was time to set up my own firm, the long break had unfortunately eroded part of my confidence and led to an irrational fear of failure.

The journey to entrepreneurial success has been hard and filled with challenges, but worth it. Today, I am happy to share my experiences with other women who are coming back to work on how to succeed both as a professional and a multi faceted woman.

Dipping your toes in

The work dynamics in the business world change constantly. Be prepared for a younger workforce, an increasing shift to email-only communication, fluid appraisal systems, and getting work done through WhatsApp or Slack. On the plus side, more companies have tools that allow you to be productive on your mobile and friendlier ‘work from home’ policies. While these changes make life easier, they also increase expectations about agility, productivity, and informality.

Before returning to work, go see how startups are working, network in professional forums, and catch up over coffee with old acquaintances. Observe, ask questions, and draw your own conclusions.

Why startups? Many of my clients are successful startups who tend to be early adopters of tools, trends, and talent, irrespective of the sector. Whether they are into neo-natal healthcare or organic foods, they are willing to experiment with new ways of working and require talented people who can make a difference. Plus startups are hard-pressed for cash, so they are usually open to working with women who want to come back to work as consultants.

Sharpen your toolkit

The downside of a break is that we lose continuity in our resumes, networks get outdated, and sometimes, one’s drive and motivation gets questioned. But this can always be handled with a bit of effort and a positive mindset.

During a break we can recharge our intellectual capital, reorient our career path, and bring purpose and conviction to our second innings. Many marketers with more traditional agency backgrounds have blossomed as digital experts, techies have picked up AI skills, and several have crossed over to different industries.

My advice? Sign up for a MOOC, subscribe to great publications about your industry (my personal favourite is the McKinsey Quarterly), follow leaders on LinkedIn, and start looking for a job well before you apply. Plus, don’t forget to blog regularly about what you read and add your own ideas and thoughts.

Emotional maturity – manage yourself

Corporate India is making progress, with hiring managers becoming a lot more accepting of career breaks. But some of us are still handling compensation policies that might be skewed against second inning players.

In the early days, fresh after my career break, I went to an alumni gathering. There I met batchmates who had avoided breaks and were several rungs and rupees further up the ladder. While listening to their success stories, I briefly regretted the cost of my career break. Eventually I realized these feelings are perfectly normal and they should not overshadow my mindset towards my re-launched career.

Remember, it’s important for us to remind ourselves that it was our choice to take time out. Resenting peers, policies, or personal circumstances can blind us to new opportunities and derail us.

Demonstrate professionalism – manage others

Not all recruiters or hiring managers have the sensitivity or maturity to probe for reasons regarding a career break, and often appear to question a candidate’s motivation for the role they are seeking.

My advice is to demonstrate professionalism and avoid becoming defensive. If the person conducting the interview is going to be your manager, then use that conversation to form your own judgment about the job. If they are overtly skeptical or doubtful about your motivation and intent, be confident and assertive about your interest. For women coming back to work, it’s in our interest to imagine our day-to-day interactions with the future manager, balance the pros and cons, and finally trust our instincts.

Ease yourself into the workplace

People who have taken career breaks for over five years often find it difficult to adjust to a 9-to-5 schedule. In today’s gig economy, women can ease themselves into the work place by offering their services as a consultant.

Easing oneself back to work gives us time to adjust both on the home front and professionally. Look out for a cool startup and offer your skills and experience with a positive attitude. After a couple of projects, you can ease yourself back to work on your own terms.

Find a mentor and a bunch of supportive friends

Having a good mentor goes a long way to career success. It works well for women who return to work, because they can use their past experience to get much more out of the mentor. I mentor a lot of startups, hoping they will succeed and avoid my mistakes. In return, they share updates on what’s going on in the startup space. It works for both of us, and in a way, I am thanking my mentors who were there for me in my difficult times.

I have also found that catching up regularly with a bunch of supportive friends who are also ‘back to work’ folks works beautifully – they can empathize with you, share practical advice, and help decompress.

Plan for support

In our country, we have the luxury of parents, in-laws, domestic help, and much more to give a helping hand. However no one can help at short notice. Sound out everyone who is a potential helper in advance and check on their availability. That gives us the luxury of going back to work with a well planned back-up for support. Plus having a loving family member waiting at the door with a smile at the end of a crazy day is an amazing feeling.

I shamelessly used my mom and in-laws as backup while coming back to work. During that time my trusted maid expanded her services by becoming a housekeeper – taking over the kitchen, buying food, and regular childcare duties – ensuring my elderly family members were not overworked. This worked admirably as my son was looked after by people who loved him as much as I did, leaving me free to focus on the job. Support may be expensive but will be a fraction of what we earn – and worth every rupee.

Women who return to work bring very meaningful and diverse experiences. They take on major changes to their work-life balance, want to prove themselves, and are actively seeking to contribute to the world at-large. They should be applauded.

So remember we are doing something wonderful. It may be a tough journey for a while, but I’d like to leave you with my favorite quote, from Barbara Novick of BlackRock, an icon on Wall Street, “Remember you can have it all, but not at the same time.” So enjoy the journey.


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