Careers For People Who Like To Work Alone


One of my favorite lessons from Sheryl Sandberg is the idea that you shouldn’t leave your career until you have actually left. In other words, “lean in” until you don’t need to anymore. But I think Sheryl misses a critical point: If our careers aren’t just about the job at hand, but about the way what we are doing fits into the arc of our lives, then we are always leaning in, whether we are in the paid workforce or not.

Women who understand that their pauses are part of their careers recognize that it is a temporary strategy, so they continue to “lean in” by maintaining, and even expanding, their contacts and connections. What does this look like? First, it means regularly checking in with past colleagues, previous bosses, and others in your professional network. One woman I interviewed made sure she had lunch with a professional contact at least once a month. Others continued to attend professional events and programs specifically targeted to help advance women’s careers.

We asked the Women on the Rise respondents if they had attended networking events while they were pausing their careers. I was surprised to learn only 29 percent had. A number of women told me they feared having to explain that they didn’t have a job and were “just” stay-at-home moms. I understand that. It takes courage to get out there and promote yourself whether you have a job or not.

In the fall of 2014, I hosted the TEDx Sand Hill Road Women’s conference in Menlo Park, California. Sand Hill Road is the avenue in the heart of Silicon Valley where the vast majority of venture capital firms have offices. If you aspire to be an entrepreneur, this is your Mecca. On that fall day, more than 100 women gathered at an event space along that famed avenue to hear fantastic speakers and be inspired. The room was filled with incredibly impressive women who held senior positions at some of the tech industry’s most storied companies. I know I was intimidated by the group, and I heard from others they were too.

I shared this at the start of the event: “There is a reason you are here today. You are meant to meet someone, hear something, or gain an insight that is intended to move your life and career forward. Today, it is all about connection, not perfection.”

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At the break, three women approached me. They were each relaunching their careers and had come to the conference together because they thought they might find a job or a contact. They were uncomfortable and worried they didn’t fit in with these “rock stars.” When we broke into small group exercises, I made sure they separated and invited them to ask their small group for support in their endeavors. A few weeks later, I learned that one of the women had a job offer from someone she had met at the event and another was busy conducting informational interviews and was confident something would arise for her as well. The third realized she wanted to pursue a different career after hearing one of the speakers talk about her work with indigenous populations. This one networking event changed those three women’s lives.

One of the TEDx attendees told me later, “It took all of my courage to attend the conference. I worried what I would say about my lack of career these past five years. I didn’t think I would have anything to offer. I realized I was wrong.”

Staying connected in person matters, but these days staying connected online matters just as much. Keeping a live profile on LinkedIn is essential, as is engaging on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other social networks in ways that go beyond just posting yet another adorable baby picture. Posting about successes with your volunteer work can show the world you continue to have professional wins even if those wins are unpaid. Commenting on articles or even posting blogs can be a way to stay engaged. Your online presence can even be the key to a new job.

One Women on the Rise respondent shared she had set up a blog and became active in online women’s groups. By building a voice and presence on issues that mattered, she was able to show potential employers she could “get the word out” and secured a job in marketing communications when she relaunched.

Women who have paused their careers often internalize the narrative that they are no longer valuable to the workplace and so completely step away from engaging in a professional manner with their networks, either online or in person. But to successfully set yourself up to get hired, you need to get out there. Attend networking events with pride and confidence. Post your key unpaid milestones on LinkedIn and elsewhere online. And, own your pause. You are doing something that matters even if you are not being paid for it. Remind your network that your pause will be brief and is part of your overall career plan. Keeping your network alive will make your re-entry much easier.

Women who understand that their pauses are part of their careers recognize that it is a temporary strategy, so they continue to “lean in” by maintaining, and even expanding, their contacts and connections.

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