How to navigate a non-linear career

I chose this image because the model looks both comfortable and fretful. Much like many of the young women I come across who are looking up and thinking “Just how, exactly, is this supposed to work?” Meaning, “How on earth do I keep a career on track at the same time as being a mother, daughter, partner, friend ….Do I have to sacrifice one thing for another? If I go at a slower pace, will I ever be able to get my career back on track?”

Treat your career like a game of chess

At the Reignite Academy, we often talk about having to approach your career like a game of chess. Have some winning tactics for that messy middle phase, but that all sounds a little vague. So what do those tactics look like? What, exactly, do you need to do to navigate a non-linear career?”

Well, we’ve spent the last few months talking to women – and men – who have managed to step on and off career ladders, who have take breaks and returned, stepped back a level and stepped up again. How did they manage it? Here are some of the common themes arising out of those conversations:

 

Tactics to help you win

Choose your line managers wisely. Easier said than done, perhaps, but try to find a line manager who cares, who trusts you, who believes in you and who will leave the door open should you ever want a path back. Sally Boyle, Head of Human Capital at Goldman Sachs, talked to us about her first ever line partner at a law firm, who insisted that she’d be the first phone when (not if) Sally decided to return from her career break.

Maintain connectivity. Never under-estimate the value of your professional networks. Even if you don’t have an immediate need, they keep you connected and can play a pivotal role in helping you find a route back. Evidence shows you are five times more likely to find a role through your network than through a recruiter. Online platforms like LinkedIn and Eventbrite make it easier than ever to keep in touch with people and attend events that are relevant to you.

You don’t need to be alone. Go back to the chess analogy. The queen is not the only piece on the board. Don’t underestimate the importance of sponsors, mentors and coaches. Be strategic as you think about who those might be, how they can help you and when. Within the Reignite programme we always give candidates an independent coach as we know the path back can be wobbly. And we encourage member firms to allocate mentors who can provide advice and insight from within.

Be prepared to take a risk when the opportunity presents itself. Don’t dither. Imagine the clock is ticking by the side of the chess board. Accept that imposter syndrome is a reality for many women and find ways to challenge it. If someone’s giving you the opportunity they must think you’re capable. Amanda, a senior employment lawyer had approached us about a place on our pilot programme. Whilst that didn’t work out, going through the process gave the the confidence to apply for – and be offered – a large in-house role.

Grit, determination, self confidence, self belief and self criticism. It’s never going to be easy but you’re made of strong stuff. Have faith in yourself and what you can deliver. If you leave the office before many of your colleagues, do so with your head held high knowing that the quality of what you’re doing is absolutely as good as theirs and it should be about output not hours input.

 

Kristin, a Reignite member remarked a few weeks ago that she had only just realised her role was not simply to put in lots of billable hours. She could also contribute business development ideas, innovative solutions, ways to work smarter that were probably even more valuable. Looping back to the first point, you need to be working for line managers who see that and who aren’t obsessed and impressed with presenteeism.

Look for the signs you’re ready to “Reignite” It’s not always a question of returning. Sometimes, you might be in work but operating below your potential. For me, it was listening to the woman’s hour power list, thinking “What happened to me?” For Annie, another person on our Reignite programme, it was looking at the people she was teaching at law school thinking “They’re about to have the career I should be having.”

What one thing?

As well as those themes, we asked people “What one thing” they would say as a piece of advice to a younger woman, looking ahead and wondering how on earth to navigate their career. Here’s a sample of what they said.

  • Remember that careers are long. Play that long game.
  • Don’t judge yourself by the pace of your colleagues’ careers. Go at your own pace. You absolutely can catch up over the long term, if, indeed, catching up is your thing.
  • This too will pass. Sleepless nights, toddler tantrums, ageing parents … nothing lasts forever. (But by the way, something else comes in its place).
  • Do what’s right for you.
  • Women absolutely have to help each other. All of us can make it easier for others.

 

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