Protagion has regular conversations with members and interested individuals about time off from their profession, either with the intention of returning, or as a step towards a new profession (i.e. a career transition).
Professionals’ career breaks can be for a variety of reasons:
Given the multi-decade length of our careers, and our multi-faceted interests, it is natural that we will consider changes as time passes, including permanent roles versus contracting versus consulting. Adapting to different stages is indeed part of lifelong learning, and even “retirement” (perhaps the ultimate career break) is now widely recognised as phased and reversible.
Time off from a profession can be temporary (like Ndivhuwo Manyonga’s decision to “spend time with [her] family and embark on some self-discovery”), or can mark the beginning of a permanent shift (like Susan Cain’s transition from lawyer to writer). The circumstances also impact whether you have the support of your employer to take your career break, including the comfort of a job when you return, which can make it significantly easier.
Another way employers can support their staff is by offering flexible working, a growing trend in many countries. When flexible or part-time work is available, it may be possible to balance both your career and your other interests (depending on the time they require) without the need for a full career break. Our post featuring Christina Dove shared how she uses the flexibility to invest in her own physical and mental wellbeing and to give back, because she believes in “mind, body and spirit equilibrium”.
Read more to see advice from Bethany Mayer, a senior leader in the technology industry, on career breaks and different roles at different phases in our lives.
Bethany Mayer’s perspective on career breaks
Currently an Independent Board Member (aka Non-Executive Director), Bethany Mayer has 30+ years of marketing, product management and operations experience in the technology industry, having worked at Apple, Cisco, Hewlett-Packard (HP) and others. After HP, she became CEO of Axia, in the network test and security market, which she led for three years, including through its acquisition by Keysight.
Softspoken by nature, Bethany emphasises the importance of believing in yourself: “Don’t let others define you – they don’t know what you’re capable of… You need to do what you know you can do.” She also feels strongly that we have to decide ourselves where we’re going in our careers, and take personal responsibility. One example is her achievement of her personal goal to study an MBA before she turned 50.
...You really need to manage [your career] yourself. You have to take ownership of it, and if it’s not working out then you’ve got to go find something different. I consider myself a free agent – I guide my course myself, and that’s how I’ve always done it.”
She values too the impact of mentors and sponsors: “I’ve been fortunate that the people I’ve worked for… have helped me progress in my career… You have to think carefully about the environment you’re in, what you’re doing, how you’re performing because hard work absolutely is a key component of it. And, all of those things together can combine for good decision-making about your career.”
In a LinkedIn article (Careers are long – there is a season for everything), Bethany discussed her career breaks, and her philosophy that “there’s time for all things”. She explains that “it is okay to take a detour for a while in your career. The detour could be time off to be with your children, or time off to go back to graduate school, or a job that is a little less demanding so that you can take care of yourself or others outside of work.”
Her own career break was to look after her young children when she was in her late-twenties, and she was able to return to work afterwards by remaining in contact with a former senior executive from her company. When she asked if she could return, that executive not only gave her a job, but she also allowed her to work part-time for the first year back.
Although I loved taking care of my children and being a mom, I worried whether I would be able to enter the workforce again. I had worked hard in college and had planned to have a career so the potential of not going back was scary. I knew that eventually I wanted to re-enter the workforce and continue with my career.”
Bethany emphasises two things about returning to work:
1) We have skills and education that we have built that “will carry you to your next role even if you take a breather for a while or take a job that isn’t quite as challenging”.
2) Maintain your contacts in business if possible: stay in touch with friends you gathered over the years and maintain relationships, as these can help when you want to go back to work or change roles or companies.
She also discusses how, at a different phase in her life, she chose to “take on a role that was much more demanding than anything I had done before. It actually propelled my career pretty intensely and enabled me to do something I really wanted to – run a P&L and eventually become a CEO. As a result of a very conscious decision to focus solely on my work for a period of time I changed the course of my career, and at that time in my life I had the freedom to do it.”
Work is not all or nothing. Work as life is ebb and flow. You are the one who can decide the parameters of work, and you can get help from others to help you through transitions. Remember, careers are long. You can make different choices over a 30 or 40 year span – and still get where you want to go.”
Commenters on Bethany’s article added that it is “key to be a constant learner and be prepared to reinvent at each stage of our lives” and breaks “can lead to a new perspective”.
What have your career break experiences been?
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