How to stay relevant during a career break on Après, a career resource for women returning to work after a break.
The term “Lean in” has gained currency these days, thanks to Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO. The social movement is so strong that it’s easy to forget that there are plenty of women “leaning out” – and for good reason.

Everyone is at a different place in their lives and career paths are no longer linear, instead marked with twists, turns, and sometimes breaks. You may find yourself in a “lean out” moment, having decided to take a pause from the workforce to become a full-time mom with thoughts of someday re-entering.  Here are five practical tips for staying relevant and making yourself employable when you are ready to step back in.

1.  Say yes to opportunities.

Have you been asked to chair the school fundraiser or help with a local non-profit but your immediate reaction is “I don’t have time?” When we’ve been out of the game for a while, big responsibilities and projects can seem daunting. We forget that being of service can pay off in ways we never imagined. So consider coming from a place of “Yes!”

Taking on meaty volunteer roles or part-time projects is the perfect opportunity to stay connected and keep those professional skills alive or even develop new ones.

I had a similar reaction when I was asked to chair the annual auction fundraiser at my kids’ school. It seemed like a major undertaking, and between my work and kids I just couldn’t imagine having the time to do it and do it well. Somehow, I bit the bullet and said yes. And I’m so happy I did.

I found myself tapping into a myriad of skills from my former life as a brand manager and management consultant – developing the fundraising strategy, marketing the auction to local businesses and service providers, running teams of parent volunteers, setting pricing strategy and managing the retail website where we sold and marketed the auction items (imagine a mini ebay). It dawned on me that if I wasn’t already working, this would be the perfect opportunity to parlay relevant and transferable skills into many job opportunities.

Three things could happen when you say yes — and they’re all good:

  • It gives you something current to put on your resume where you can highlight key skills such as leadership, project management and communications, not to mention show the results you delivered.
  • You may meet some interesting people who can help you in your future professional endeavors.
  • You can highlight the experience in your networking conversations and interviews.

2.  Hang out with people who are “leaning in.”

Mix things up and meet someone from your previous professional life for coffee or a drink. Even if you’ve decided to off-ramp for a while it’s important to stay connected to the workforce. It can be refreshing and energizing to touch base with people who are in the thick of the working world every day, not to mention a confidence booster to re-engage with those familiar with your “former self” and accomplishments before you paused your career.

There’s also a big pool of untapped relationships right under your nose: for example, working moms at your school. Get to know a few of them. Find out more about what they do, how they balance work, life and family. You have to be inquisitive; if you’re not inquisitive by nature, start asking questions anyway. Show an interest. People love to talk about their own experiences and you can learn a lot from this networking/relationship-building exercise. If this sounds daunting to you, check out my tips on effective networking.

3. Update your skills or develop new ones.

Everyone wants to live a balanced life, right? While it’s easier said than done, it’s important to remain cognizant of where you came from and nurture that side of you. I’ve been there. After having my first child, I made the difficult decision to leave my brand management job to focus on my son. I knew I didn’t want to return to a demanding corporate role, but I also knew I wanted to someday find work that I could balance with my new role as a mom. It was a confusing time as I had always valued my career identity and here I was consumed with poopy diapers, mommy groups and nap schedules, feeling my former self slip away from me.

While I loved my new life and the days were full, there was still a lot of time to think and I kept coming back to my passion for mentoring and coaching friends and colleagues in their career development.   So, I started in a modest and manageable way by investing in some networking with career coaches to learn firsthand about the field and how they got started.  Those conversations validated my hunch — this is what I wanted to do. I continued (with baby steps) my exploration, and as time allowed I enrolled in a coaching training program that met once a month.

Taking small steps was the key – even if I only spent 30 minutes a week devoted to my new career interest, it was something.  And it got me moving forward.  You can do the same, and it doesn’t have to detract from your primary mission as a parent. Stay fresh by taking a course or two at a community college or enrolling in a certificate program. Consider choosing a course that requires a field study project as it will have a discreet beginning and end, allow you to show results and give you something significant to discuss in an interview.

Another option is online learning, the newest wave in education. The offerings are continually expanding and they’re quite substantive. For example, www.udemy.com boasts over 8,000 online videos and lectures from experts of an endless array of topics. You can take a beginner Excel class from your kitchen table. Want to learn more about social media? Social media marketing classes are hot and readily available and you can find classes that range from beginner to advanced. It’s such an easy, risk-free, and inexpensive way to try and learn something new.

4.  Link in and link up.

LinkedIn has altered the hiring landscape. Research shows 94% of recruiters use it to identify and recruit candidates. Even if you are currently not working, it’s “the place to be.”  Use your “lean out” time to build your network so when you’re ready to jump back in you will have access to people and resources who can help you.

If you have a LinkedIn profile, make sure it’s current. If you don’t, build one. It’s easy to do. Just remember to keep it simple. It’s okay if your headline refers to your last position (e.g. Former Finance Manager) or if you are working on some part-time projects it’s proper to call yourself a Freelancer or Consultant.

Build your LinkedIn network by adding professional and personal friends. Connect with everyone – old colleagues, college classmates and PTA volunteers. Sure, not all of them have a direct connection to your professional life but even your children’s soccer coach knows someone who knows someone.

5.   Don’t get complacent.

As a mom, I know it’s easy to get stuck in the daily routine of carpools, classroom volunteering, homework supervision, play date coordinating, dinner making, (and let’s be honest:  yoga) and the list goes on and on. Understandably, it seems there is no time to add one more task to your list of to-dos. Or you’ve let a whole day go by and thought, “What did I accomplish today?”

Make a commitment to schedule some professional development time for yourself during your week. It can even be fun and social – how about starting a networking group with like-minded moms who also want to grow and develop new skills.

Leaning out doesn’t mean you have to abandon your long term career aspirations. Following these simple steps now will enable you to be prepared if (or when) that day comes for you to lean back in.

Invest in yourself – you deserve it!

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JCB coaching headshot

Jennifer Chow Bevan is a Los Angeles based executive career coach and founder of Path Relaunch. As a mom who has experienced her share of career transitions and relaunches, she is passionate about helping smart, motivated professionals and moms navigate their transitions. For career tips and updates, follow Jennifer on Twitter @jcbevanla and Facebook: PathRelaunchMore about Path Relaunch.

Après is a career resource for women returning to work after a break or transitioning within the workforce. Reconnect with your professional self — search jobs, get inspired, find resources, and refresh your skills. Join our community of women helping women.

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