Cover How to put your best foot forward in your job search? Follow these tips from career coaches and a recruiter (Photo: Getty Images)

It's intimidating to get back on a career path if you've been out of the workforce, whether you were laid off or home with kids. We turned to four experts for advice on managing change

Gender equality has taken a hit during Covid-19, with women disproportionately affected by job losses and caregiving needs. And as the pandemic drags on, it's inspiring some major self-reflection.

Sarah Kalmeta is among the many women who’ve found themselves at a crossroads. She used to travel frequently as a director for a global aviation company and seized any public holiday as a chance for a getaway. Being grounded in Hong Kong has sent her on a personal journey.

“I realised I married this person I’m not actually very aligned with, and we ended up getting divorced,” she says. Professionally, she had already achieved the goals she wanted to reach by 35 and wondered what was next. “It made me really understand how many of us live on this automatic autopilot,” says Kalmeta. So in her professional life, too, she pivoted. Kalmeta identified connection and curiosity as core values and capitalised on her experience in corporate training programmes to become a career and holistic life coach.

“I’ve allowed myself to change even as I saw a lot of peers be very rigid,” says Kalmeta. “I encourage them to keep an open mind because what you did before is relevant but it’s not the end all, be all.”

Cultivating this kind of growth mindset is important for anyone considering how to reenter the workforce or make an industry switch. As Kirti Lad, founder of Meraki Executive Search & Consulting, puts it: “Our new norm is operating in an environment of constant uncertainty, vulnerability and change. Having the resilience and grit to step into the edge, although there is fear of failure and the unknown, this is where the growth takes place and opportunities present themselves.”

The encouraging news is that experts we interviewed cited opportunities that have come with recent shifts in work culture and needs. Tiffany Wong, a 12-year veteran of recruitment firm Robert Walters, says she has seen "an evolution" as companies become more accepting of non-linear career paths—and of returning mothers in particular. D&I consultant and leadership coach Shirley Adrain, who spent 20 years in global IT leadership roles, has an even rosier outlook.

“I believe there’s never been a better time to return to work after a career break as in Asia we have a skills shortage and employers are looking to hire diverse talent pools,” says Adrain. “Employees with a wealth of experience and a gap where they had different life experiences can add more diversity of ideas and thought to any team.”

Read on for these experts' tips on how to identify your skills and values, network with confidence and position yourself to reenter the workforce successfully. 

Above Sarah Kalmeta share tips on how to make a career pivot in our Front & Female webinar

1. Adjust your mindset and rebuild your confidence

Women are still more likely than men to take an extended career break, most commonly as a result of raising young children, relocating as a trailing spouse or attending to a relative's ill health. Whatever the circumstances, with the loss of your professional life, there's a risk of losing your identity and sense of self-worth too.

“We put so much weight on the impact we make in the workplace, so when this is taken away, it’s incredibly hard to recognise the true value we offer, which leads to a lack of confidence and sometimes anxiety and apprehension,” says Lad. Women considering getting back on a career track often worry whether their skills are up to date and if they have the right mindset to go back to the office in a full-time capacity. 

Imposter syndrome—doubting your abilities and the fear of being found out as a fraud—is a major mental barrier. To break through, you need to rebuild your confidence. Lad recommends asking family and friends to share one or two things about you that they value the most: “you will be surprised how much of an impact you have on people around you without even knowing it.”

Another tactic is to turn to Ted Talks for inspiration. Kalmeta cites Amy Cuddy's talk on power poses and suggests videotaping yourself so that you can critique your body language, speed and presentation style. “It’s about building your confidence, which you can only do when you practice.”

Noting that the world has embraced e-learning, Wong recommends taking advantage of online courses and webinars to upskill and be able to speak with confidence about the latest developments in your desired industry.

See also: 10 Female-Led Ted Talks Everyone Should Watch

2. Identify foundational and transferrable skills

Remind yourself that you are more than capable—and that it’s not all about job-specific skills. “When transitioning, be it from a career break or from one industry to another, there are attributes that help people perform to their optimum ability and that organisations look for in their talent,” says Lad. She recommends coming up with examples from in or out of a work environment that demonstrate resilience, growth mindset, ability to adapt, learning agility and collaboration. 

Apart from such foundational attributes, reflect on what are your core skills, such as project management or customer service, and how you might leverage them in a new capacity. Adrain cites the example of a client who had worked in advertising for Cosmopolitan. When she started a job search after a nine-year gap, she used her transferrable skills to land a more senior, lucrative role as director of communications and marketing at an international school in South Korea.

Another client of Adrain's was an environmental engineer at a utility in the United Kingdom. She was offered a returnship role in the growth area of sustainable finance and used her research and project management skills to excel; in the end, she got a permanent, part-time placement.

3. Craft your professional story

“I recommend that women work on their story and are clear on what they're looking for and what they can offer," says Adrain. "Rather than be seen as a mum, you need to reframe your narrative and let people who have met you since you left work know that you are a qualified accountant with 15 years’ experience in retail finance." Once you begin spreading the word, people are typically happy to make introductions.

Wong recommends being prepared with a simple explanation for why you took time out of the workforce and why you're looking to return. If you were let go from a job, she says, "there's nothing wrong with that because it’s not personal; it’s a business decision." Wong encourages candidates in that scenario to remain positive; any bitterness in an interview will make potential employers concerned about your mindset and how you may talk about their company in the future.

Acknowledging a layoff is also an opportunity to showcase how you were able to adapt and use that time to your advantage. “If you can highlight what actions you took in a difficult situation, such as learning a new skill, it will make you stand out,” says Kalmeta. 

Once you have your professional story, keep an open mind about which role will fill the next chapter. “I encourage clients, don’t think you’re overqualified or underqualified. If something is interesting to you, go and apply for it,” says Kalmeta. “You never want to have one hundred percent of the job description, anyway, because if you do, there’s no room for you to grow.”

4. Up your LinkedIn game

If you haven't been working, chances are you haven't been on LinkedIn much, so it's time to become an active user. One strategy is to read, share and comment on articles and posts in your desired line of business to establish your expertise and make you visible in the market.

Update your LinkedIn profile to be sure you have a professional photo and enter two or three job titles in the headline, using titles that you have seen included in job listings, suggests Adrain, such as: Digital Marketer | Events Organiser | Communications Expert. 

Your CV likely needs an overhaul, too, but Kalmeta cautions against the common mistake of making your LinkedIn profile as detailed as your CV. Most people on LinkedIn want to get a general idea of you; it's about telling a story of who you are and what you’ve done, with some big achievements and accolades. "If you put your entire CV on LinkedIn, I have no need to call you and I might make a snap judgment that you’re not the right fit," says Kalmeta. "But if you tell a compelling story and draw me in, then I’ll want to know more."

If someone’s LinkedIn profile catches your eye, send a personalised request to connect. For instance, Kalmeta came across Liz Bradford’s profile and was intrigued by her past role as chief resilience officer at an Australian company. So Kalmeta sent her a message including some feedback on Bradford’s blog. The two have since become friends and collaborators.

See also: How To Find A Mentor: 19 Tips On How To Make Mentors Work For You

5. Check in with previous employers

Reconnect with colleagues at your old companies and inquire if there is a position where you can help add value. "Maybe it’s a contract role or a maternity leave coverage to start," says Wong. "I’ve seen mothers come back to work in a contract role and move subsequently into a senior position."

Adrain has worked with quite a few clients who have found a role back with a previous employer. One had taken 10 years off from working in insurance. Networking with two insurance experts convinced her that her skills were still relevant and gave her the confidence to approach her former employer, who offered her a role.

6. Cultivate your network like it's your net worth

Networking is a fundamental element of any job search and tapping into personal referrals is all the more important in certain scenarios. “Recruiters are often focused on filling roles quickly, and it’s easier for them to do that with someone who is currently doing a similar role and has no gap in their CV,” says Adrain. 

“If you want to make a career industry change, it’s very hard for me to place you as a former accountant in a public relations role,” acknowledges Wong. “You need someone who knows you and knows you’re amazing with people; it’s an advocate’s personal referral that would get you through the line.”

To broaden your network, consider joining organisations like The Women’s Foundation and attending events run by industry groups and the various Chambers of Commerce. Mingling at such events can be a great opportunity to practice your elevator pitch—introducing yourself and what you’re looking for in your career. If you’re already part of an NGO or networking group, think about whether there are opportunities to take a more active, paid role.

See also: Upfront With Sex Coach Sara Tang On Her Midlife Career Change


7. Explore Return to Work programmes

Return To Work programmes are a strategic way to socialise yourself back into the work place and upskill. Participants typically get to learn new skills, work on a project for around three months and, hopefully, be offered a permanent role at the end of the programme. Adrain cites Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, BNP Paribas and JP Morgan among the companies that offer such Return to Work programmes in Asia.

Wong highlights these types of established, sizeable companies as generally being a good fit for mothers returning to the workforce. "They will have more resources and a better structure of policies to support working mothers," she says, compared to a small company or startup. 

8. Get your home life sorted

“If you’re genuinely interested in coming back to work, sort out your childcare,” says Wong. “It kills me as a recruiter to try to fight for a mom to be an employee and then, a month later, the candidate comes back and says, 'I can’t, my kid needs me.'” Reflect and be honest with yourself—and any recruiters and potential employers—about what you are able to take on. Try to anticipate how your schedule and home life will evolve and get your partner and any domestic help onboard. "There’s nothing wrong with taking a career break, but I think what is wrong is if you decide to come back and you’re not responsible because that will give moms a bad reputation,” says Wong. 

See also: How I Work It: A Green Developer And Single Parent On Organising Her Work Life

9. Embrace the value of maturity

As Asia's population ages, companies increasingly have to consider the needs of older clients. "Women in their 50s (I’m one of them!) have a lot to offer and many still have the energy that they had in their 20s and 30s," says Adrain. "Women don’t lose their drive, especially if we’re following our purpose and doing a job we love."

Adrain ascribes to the view that your 40s can be a wake-up call to find the purpose you yearn for. It's a decade that can tee you up for your 50s and 60s to be the best career years, when you truly understand yourself and the value you add. "Be proud of all that you have to offer and demonstrate your curiosity and learning mindset," says Adrain. "Sharing your experience whilst learning new skills can make you invaluable to employers."

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