I was a “Woman of the ‘80’s”. I could have it all – a well-planned life of a fulfilling and exciting law career, an equal and happy marriage, and children – all in that order. I would execute it all with ease and grace.
Years later, as a “Mother of the New Millennium”, I had four magnificent children, a successful husband, and a law degree languishing in the backdrop. I was on a parallel road from the one on which I had begun my journey. My choice to sideline my career was gradual, unintentional and, for me, unavoidable given the events in my life and the limitations of corporate culture.
Volunteering answered some of my professional restlessness during the early years home with my children. When my oldest child was preparing to enter high school, I longed for the intellectual stimulation and sense of individual accomplishment that my professional career had afforded me. Despite my community involvement, I found that I was no longer taken seriously as a professional. I was at a complete loss as to where and how to begin my re-entry.
A few months later I read an article in the September 25, 2006 Newsweek titled “Getting Back on Track”, about women who had taken career “off-ramps” to raise children and were having trouble finding “on-ramps” when they are ready to work again. It discussed the emerging Career Sequencing Movement, the growing number of professionals who have “off-ramped” from their traditional, linear career paths and are, after a period of time, returning to their careers (also known a “on-ramping”.) The article mentioned the upcoming inaugural class of the “Back in Business” Program at The Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College, an intensive, comprehensive program intended for professionals with MBA’s or MBA-equivalent experience who have worked in high-potential careers. This “Program”, designed to update and refresh the management skills of business professionals and help them reintegrate into the workforce, was my answer! I called immediately, but had missed the application deadline for the 2006 Charter Class. The following spring, I completed the formal application process and was admitted to the “Back in Business” Class of 2007.
The program spanned approximately nine weeks. Pre-session reading materials arrived before each of the three “classroom modules”. Each module lasted four or five days. During these days we were fully immersed in the Program. Our days started as early as 6:45 am and ended after 9:00 pm. Modules One and Three were held on the Dartmouth College campus in Hanover, NH. Module Two was held in New York City. The significant commitment of time and focus (during and in between modules) reflected the effort and commitment that would be necessary to re-enter the corporate workforce.
There were thirty-one participants in my class; twenty-seven women and four men. The average age was Forty-eight. While more than half of the participants were from the Northeast, we represented a total of sixteen states, including Texas, California, Kansas, Colorado, Georgia and Michigan.
The participants were impressively accomplished. Among the careers: vice presidents of marketing, sales, finance and information technology, management consultants, a professional baseball player turned Major League Baseball manager, the CEO of an advertising agency, the general counsel of a publicly traded company, and me, a business attorney. The average career had spanned fifteen years and the average period of time out of the corporate workforce was eight years.
The first evening, my classmates shared the curves and cross roads that had led them off the corporate highway and then ultimately to the “Back in Business” Program. Some spoke of illness in family or deep loss, others as trailing spouses, raising children, being down-sized, early retirement turned to boredom, as well as divorce.
As I anticipated, the Module One courses reviewed the fundamentals of finance, marketing, strategy, excel, and accounting that we had learned in business school. The professors were deeply knowledgeable, interesting and engaging. I was unprepared for the focus on and priority of rebuilding the self-confidence of the participants. We were a community of talented and capable people who had all been subjected to a level of professional isolation that had left us with wavering self esteem and a defensiveness as to how or why we had off-ramped. There was a deep respect for the process through which we would all need to pass before we could transition to a strong and positive understanding of where and how we on-ramp.
Our class quickly developed the camaraderie and positive personal dynamics that are a critical aspect of the Program. For many of us the networks of our earlier careers had faded. As a group we established a strong and effective network of professional colleagues that more than a year later, we still turn to for support, as well as contacts and professional advice.
At the close of Module One, we were presented with our “Capstone Projects.” The task was to evaluate the valuation and appropriateness of the real life merger of two companies using the research tools, publications, valuation strategies and presentation options taught to us during the Program. We were strategically assigned to Project Groups, organized to highlight our diversified backgrounds (marketing, finance, law, advertising, etc.)
Following a sixteen-day break, we all reconvened in New York City for Module Two. We had all done our best to keep up with our lives and our pre-session assignments; tangibly navigating some of the work/life responsibilities that go hand in hand with a return to the corporate workforce. The coursework focused on “up-dating” our knowledge of new trends and developments in business, as well as addressing the quickly changing impacts of globalization.
Module Two also featured the “Career Café.” Faced with a declining workforce as baby boomers retire, forward thinking companies view “on-rampers” as a valuable, underutilized resource for mature, motivated and experienced employees. We met with human resource representatives from a dozen companies. We shared with them our resumes, gathered feedback concerning our career goals and future placement, and learned more about the different companies. That evening we were the face of the Career Sequencing Movement. Several of us made contacts that led to interviews and job offers.
"...I became aware of the strong interpersonal and people management skills I had developed in my 'off-ramp' years.”
Module Three, seventeen days later, returned us to the Dartmouth College campus. The distinct growth in confidence and self-esteem among the group was highlighted against the backdrop of where we started this journey. We continued to update our skills with outstanding professors and course material. The Project Groups met and worked during every free moment. Each group experienced some level of tension, similar to working under a corporate deadline. We were all reminded that we would be faced with managing different approaches and work styles when we re-enter the workforce. We closed the Program at the end of Module Three with our Group Project Presentations and short graduation ceremony.
When I began the Tuck School of Business, Back in Business Program, my focus was on how I had changed professionally and personally. I was concerned that my skills that had become dulled or outdated. I was also aware of my loss of professional confidence. I had entered the Program to overcome these professional deficits, but as I was engaged in the Program I became keenly aware of the strong interpersonal and people management skills I had developed in my “off-ramp years.”
Having completed the Program, I have re-connected with my professional identity. I have regained confidence in myself and the current-cy of my skills. I am pleased with the interest and willingness I have encountered from companies and organizations to consider non-linear lateral hires.
Through interviewing with companies, I was surprised to realize that the work I had always enjoyed most, and to which felt I brought the greatest value, has changed. Earlier in my career as an in-house corporate lawyer I was involved in helping make business decisions, involving both short and long term strategic planning. Many corporate law positions today are as Compliance Officers, which is heavily focused on the documentation of decisions already made. To step back into the role I enjoyed, I now fall under the umbrella of “Consulting”. While the role is similar, the corporate culture in consulting firms is very different from the culture of the corporate legal departments in which I had practiced. I must further redefine myself amidst a new background of corporate/organizational definition.
"...I have re-connected with my
As I consider the added value I can bring to an organization, I recognize the invaluable practical skills, experience and wisdom I gained during my “off-ramp” years. I see now my business law background as one of several of my valuable strengths. With my expanded, current skill set and new network, I am no longer at a loss as to how I “on-ramp”. My question now is in what capacity I choose to re-enter.
The growth of the Career Sequencing Movement (having it all, but in a non-liner timeframe) is rooted in programs like The Tuck School of Business, Back in Business Program coupled with our pioneering efforts to reform corporate culture by forging new paths. The long-term success will be determined by the emerging awareness and commitment of corporations to appreciate and embrace the true value of “on- rampers”. In a weak economy, such a movement might loses some force, but the efforts of “on-rampers” to update skills and engage in professional networking will move us back in line with our early professional expectations.
I intend to execute my “on –ramp” with grace, trusting that from my efforts my daughter will one day be able to “have it all” with ease.