Embrace the Gap

Many people have taken breaks during their careers and wonder how to explain the gap in their experience. My suggestion: embrace it, just like students do with a gap year. 

Photo of a pink floppy disk
Image courtesy of nuttakit / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Last week, I caught up with a friend Ann, a stay-at-home mom who is thinking about returning to the workforce. She shared with me a dirty little secret: her latest resume is on a floppy disk. I had to laugh. Not only has she not updated her resume in almost 20 years, she wasn’t even able to open it.

As you can imagine, Ann wasn’t sure where to begin creating a new resume. She had done plenty of volunteer work as a stay-at-home mom, but she wondered if it was significant enough to list on her resume or LinkedIn profile. She didn’t necessarily remember the dates of her jobs earlier in her career. She was spinning her wheels, not sure how to proceed.

Does this sound familiar? Perhaps you don’t have a 20 year gap, but instead took off a year, or two or three, for personal reasons? If so, you may be asking yourself how you can prove you can still do the job. You may be wondering how to fill your resume with something, anything, to show you were productive during those years.

My suggestion is to embrace the gap you have in your professional experience. Don’t conceal it; instead, emphasize what you learned, how you grew, and how you changed. Think like a student who takes a gap year before going to college. As long as they aren’t sitting on their parents’ couches watching TV all year, they tend to gain valuable experience by traveling, working, or volunteering. There’s no stigma, no reason to hide what they’ve done.

As my friend Ann started writing a new resume, she tried to hide her years at home by emphasizing her earlier career in marketing. However, through volunteer activities, Ann had discovered her passion for helping the elderly. She enjoyed spending time with older people, helping them with errands, and bringing them to doctors appointments. So, I encouraged her to describe her volunteer work in a way that showcased her passion for helping older people, and to be clear that she was looking for a similar role as a paid employee. Her next draft was spot on and ready to start sending to potential employers.

While emphasizing volunteer activities is a great way to embrace a gap in your career, here are some overall strategies to consider:

Show that you know how to stay relevant. As you begin your return to work, read respected news sites and blogs for your field. Join relevant groups and follow Influencers on LinkedIn. Write comments on articles posted by these influencers. Read a best selling business book published this year (or two!). And, as you network and start interviewing, ask others for their favorite sources for industry news. Not only is it a great way to start a conversation, you also may discover trends or influential people that missed your radar because of your gap.

Identify transferrable skills. Take the skills that you learned during your gap and describe them in a way that will resonate with potential employers. If you started a blog, talk about how you became a better writer or photographer. If you organized volunteers, talk about how you mastered delegation. However, be careful to not take the analogy too far. No one becomes a supply chain expert by packing lunches for their family every morning, or a CFO by balancing their personal checkbook.

Highlight what you learned about yourself. What did you learn about yourself or do that you were surprised by? Just as Ann discovered she loved working with older people, what did you learn about yourself that would be of interest to a hiring manager? If you had the opportunity to travel to new destinations, what surprised you about the experience? If you took on an internship to learn new skills before looking for a full-time job, did you find something you wanted to look for (or stay away from) moving forward?

Make yourself unforgettable. Breaks from a typical career path can become the fuel for an interesting personal story. What’s your story? Write it, practice it, share it with friends, and then tell it to potential employers. Hopefully, your story will be unforgettable, and they’ll bring you in for a second round of interviews.

Do you have a gap on your resume? Or do you know a young person who is taking a gap year before college? What additional strategies would you recommend for embracing it, and not concealing it? I look forward to hearing from you!


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

(Photo credit: BigStock.com)

Personal Branding: Why Wait for a Job Search?

Invent Your Future logoI often have ideas for articles about career development, usually based on questions I’m asked when I speak at events. Because “Use Your Inside Voice” is focused the intersection of leadership and parenting, I don’t want to publish general career advice here. Instead, I reach out to other blogs, offering to write a guest post on the topic.

Most recently, I wrote such a post for Invent Your Future. If you subscribe to my blog, you may remember that I facilitated round-table discussions at the recent Invent Your Future conference. As a follow up, I wrote a post about personal branding and why you should keep your LinkedIn profile updated, even when you’re not actively looking for a job:

Personal Branding: Why Wait for a Job Search?

After reading it, perhaps you’ll think of even more reasons to update your profile. Please share them in a comment. I’d like to hear from you!


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

More thoughts on making yourself unforgettable

After posting Make yourself unforgettable, I read an article on Forbes: Volunteering: How Helping Out Helps You Stand Out In the Workplace. It emphasized the importance of volunteerism and proudly listing this experience on your resume and LinkedIn profile:

“Companies today are looking for well-rounded candidates…. In fact, one in every five hiring managers in the U.S. say they have selected a candidate because of his or her volunteer experience.”

High school students know to highlight volunteer work in their college applications. Millenials know to list it in their LinkedIn profiles.  But, the same might not hold true for all job seekers.

As I wrote in my previous post, if you’re a leader who’s mentoring someone through a job search, help them be unforgettable. If they can’t claim a memorable hobby or accomplishment, they can still differentiate themselves with volunteer work. Encourage them to describe it with passion and conviction. Help them stand out!


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

Make yourself unforgettable

How do you get someone’s attention? At last week’s Invent Your Future conference, I facilitated a series of round-table discussions for women about advancing their technical careers. It was great meeting so many talented women and hearing about their professional goals. We touched on a number of topics, including how to get the attention of a recruiter when you submit your resume to a job posting. In particular, the women wanted to know how to make their resume stand out.

It made me think of the advice my daughter got just a couple of weeks ago. If you’ve been reading my blog, you know my daughter is a junior in high school and starting to think about college. We met with a counselor who was sharing some strategies writing essays for college applications. Her overall piece of advice? “Make yourself unforgettable.”

Makes sense, right? You want your application to stand out from the thousands of others that the college admissions staff will read. The same is true for cover letters and LinkedIn profile summaries. You need to emphasize what’s special about you. What will you bring to the job or to the student body that no one else will? What story can you tell in your application that people will remember weeks or years later? What is your unique personal brand?

I’ve interviewed hundreds of people over my career, and many had resumes that clearly were unforgettable. Ditto for some of my colleagues, who I interviewed for this article. Here are some of our favorite, most memorable resumes:

  • The engineer whose hobby was being a videographer for a skydiving school, which meant he jumped out of airplanes regularly.
  • The project manager who included photos of his neatly folded socks after reading my tongue-in-cheek requirement that the ideal candidate has an organized sock drawer.
  • The applicant for a bank credit investigator job who had been the Casaba Melon Queen of San Joaquin County.
  • An editor who enjoyed “small objects, aggressive vacuuming and beating my mother-in-law at Scrabble.”

In case you’re curious, each one of these candidates got the job! Obviously, they were highly qualified, and we’ll never know if they would have landed the job if their resumes hadn’t included these “unforgettable” qualities. Regardless, the moral is that you don’t need to tell something super impressive about yourself, just something that makes people want to know more.

So, whether you’re a parent helping your child apply for colleges or their first job, or a leader who’s mentoring someone through a job search, help them be unforgettable. And, share your ideas in a comment! I’d like to hear from you.


p.s. For more ideas, check out my follow-on blog post:
More thoughts on making yourself unforgettable

© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

Tell ’em to start a club!

If I had a nickel for every person who has asked me for advice about how to move into management, I’d be rich! Well, not really. I’d probably have enough to buy myself lunch. But, the point is that I’ve been asked about it a lot. Here’s what happens: someone applies for a first level managerial position, but are told they need experience managing people before they will be considered. Of course, they can’t get people management experience unless they are given the opportunity. It’s a catch-22.

One piece of advice I often give in this situation is to offer to manage an intern. Many leaders would be happy to delegate managing an intern to someone without management experience, as it creates an opportunity for career growth while relieving them of some work.

I also started thinking about how high school students create opportunities to learn management skills. Not too long ago, I attended an open house for an independent high school near our home. At the event, students told us about why they chose to go to the school,  their favorite class, and their extra curricular activities. Each student was the founder and president of a club…the modern dance club, an a cappella group, a creative writing club…the list went on and on.

By starting clubs, these students were learning valuable leadership skills while demonstrating initiative, meeting new people, creating an opportunity to be seen as a leader by other students, and generating visibility with teachers who can write recommendations and make introductions. Plus they were doing something they enjoyed. A win-win situation all around!

Clubs are also a great way for employees to build their leadership brand. I’ve seen it first hand over my career; I’ve started a book club for program managers, and I’ve sponsored a book club for women’s leadership. Based on my experience, I wrote a free publication with practical tips for starting a club at work:

Karen’s Tip: Start a Club

If you know someone who wants to develop leadership skills, or are interested in creating an opportunity for yourself, be sure to check it out.


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

Career Tip: Got Sponsors?

In 2012, after a long career in the software industry, I decided to shift my professional focus to help others reach their career goals. My friends told me I have a unique perspective to share: I was a software engineer who was determined to have it all. I wanted to be a mom and be a leader! And I wanted to do it on my terms. Starting with my first child, I chose to work part-time and maintained this schedule for ten years. During that time, I had two children, kept increasing my responsibilities at work, and was promoted to vice president. Yup, I was promoted to the vp level while working part-time. It wasn’t always easy, but I did it.

Reflecting on my experience, I see that I made good choices and held fast to my vision for my life. It’s also clear that I had help along the way: from friends, peers, mentors, sponsors, and my family. I want to say thanks to those who helped me by “paying it forward” to others facing similar challenges.

I’m taking a multi-prong approach to helping people reach their goals. In addition to writing “Use Your Inside Voice” to share my thoughts on the intersection of leadership and parenting, I’m a speaker, leadership coach, and advisor for women’s affinity programs. I also enjoy being a guest blogger, writing about best practices for career development.

Most recently, I wrote a guest post for Global Tech Women about how to engage with sponsors, or people who are influential in your organization or your industry. Sponsors are leaders who know you well enough to advocate for you and recommend you for new opportunities. With their organizational clout, they can open doors you never knew existed. They could be the key to your career advancement. But, you can’t just ask someone to be your sponsor. You need to earn their respect! My guest post takes the mystery out of engaging a sponsor. If you think sponsors could help you meet your career goals, be sure to check it out.

Update: Engage a Sponsor is now available as a free downloadable pdf. It’s part of a series called Karen’s Tips. Each one is filled with practical ideas for growing your career and clear action items for planning your next steps.  — February 2013


About Global Tech Women

It is time to think about the gender gap in technology in a new way. The representation of women in computer science and engineering has been declining over the last three decades. It’s time for something new.

Global Tech Women, founded in 2012, believes the solution to this persistent problem is to focus on the needs of individual technical women on a personal and professional level – providing them with consistent support from their freshman year to their entry in the workforce, their first and subsequent promotions, and their successful retirement.