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)

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.

It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day

Photo of sunrise
Photo courtesy of my friend Sherry Page, who took it on an early morning walk in Sausalito, California. © 2013 by Sherry Page.

Sometimes when I write, I find myself singing a song over and over. Often it’s just a refrain, loosely connected to the topic I’m thinking about. Today, it’s the refrain from “Feeling Good” by Muse, which includes “It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day….for me.” (For those of you who are fans of Nina Simone or Michael Bublé, yes, they recorded this song as well.)

My son loves Muse, and he’s been learning to play “Feeling Good” on the piano. So, I’ve been hearing it a lot lately, and I’m not surprised to find myself singing it as I go about my day.

What is my new dawn, my new day? Turns out I entered a new phase of parenting recently: mentoring my teens about how to interview for jobs.

On Saturday, my son had an interview to be a teaching assistant for a summer program for kids from under-resourced communities. Before the interview, I told him to be prepared to ask some questions and to share why he was excited about the program. And, because the teaching assistants can propose an extra-curricular activity to lead, I asked my son what he would say in the interview if this came up. While I half expected him to say “Muse Sing-alongs”, his answer was even better: “Improv.”  How fun!

The next day, my daughter wanted to talk about her upcoming interview for a summer internship at a non-profit that supports women computer scientists. What should she wear?  I said to stay away from ripped jeans and hoodie sweatshirts. (We live in Silicon Valley where workplaces tend to be very casual, but I think it’s nice, even for a high school student, to look pulled together for an interview.) What should she bring? I told her to leave her heavy school backpack in the car, and bring in just a purse and a notebook. We also made sure she had driving directions, her contact’s phone number, and a list of questions to ask about the internship. Check, check, and check!

This experience made me think about what lies ahead for me as a parent. Will I rely even more on mentoring and other leadership skills to be the parent my kids need?  I hope so. I feel I have a lot to share with my kids as they become adults, and so much more still to teach them. I’m thrilled they respect me enough to want to learn from me. And (humming along to the Muse tune), it fee-eels goo-oo-ood…

For those of you with college-age or adult children, I’d love to hear about the parenting skills that are important to you today. How much do they overlap with your leadership style? Please post a reply in the comments.


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

Parenting Skills DO Translate to the Office

Last week, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, an author and professor at Harvard Business School, published an HBR blog post titled Why Running a Family Doesn’t Help You Run a Business. If she wanted to generate controversy, she was successful! Based on the comments, readers were incensed by her assertions about stay-at-home moms who were looking to return to the workforce. Some of her more controversial statements were that stay-at-home moms would be too focused on compassion vs. hiring the right people, and that their time spent in limited-vocabulary conversations would impact their ability to think strategically. I’m still shaking my head over that last one.

While I don’t think anyone should go into an interview thinking their stay-at-home experience will be 100% relevant, I do believe that Ms. Kantor’s article was short-sighted. To counter it, I think we need to share stories about successful re-entries into the workforce. In fact, here’s one about a former colleague of mine:

After spending ten years at home raising her three kids, Ann, a talented engineer, decided to return to the software industry. She reached out to her network of professional contacts and heard about a great job opportunity. Because of her past reputation, Ann was invited to interview for the position. Knowing she would be scrutinized for the long hole in her resume, she did a very clever thing. Using software developed by the company, Ann created a digital presentation about a home remodeling project she had recently done. Not only did she demonstrate her technical abilities, she showed that she was willing to learn and work for something she wanted, and that she had been honing her project management skills at home. As you might imagine, she got the job.

Do you know about someone who was a stay-at-home parent and successfully re-entered the workforce? Please click “Leave a reply” to share your story. I’d like to hear from you!


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

When it’s time to kill the sled dogs

StateLibQld 1 242813 Frank Hurley's photograph of the Endurance being crushed by the ice in Antarctica, 1915

One of my favorite books is “Endurance,” Sir Ernest Shackleton’s story of his attempt in 1914 to cross Antartica via the South Pole. After his ship became stuck in ice, Shackleton led his crew on a two year journey to safety. Along the way, he showed incredible leadership. One example is when he made the difficult decision to kill the sled dogs, who were a drain on their precious supplies.  Shackleton, knowing that his men were fond of the animals, talked about how much the dogs consumed for a few weeks before announcing his decision. By socializing the idea that they may need to kill the dogs, he gave everyone time to come to grips with it.

As leaders, we are faced with difficult decisions all the time. I remember a particularly challenging hiring process for a manager in my department. I was looking for someone with a specific technical expertise who could also chart an inspiring, strategic direction. After reviewing many resumes, I found an ideal candidate and brought him in to be interviewed by the team. Afterwards, I led a debriefing session to gather everyone’s feedback. To my surprise, they gave a collective thumbs-down. I couldn’t believe it! He was more than qualified and an all-around nice guy, but still the team didn’t think he was the right person to hire. Over the next couple of days, I muddled over this feedback, consulted with some of my trusted members of the team, and ultimately decided to hire him. My gut told me he was the one. When I announced my decision to the team, I made sure I did three things:

  • I acknowledged that I heard their feedback,
  • I told them I was going against their recommendations and explained why, and
  • I asked them to keep an open mind as the candidate joined us.

Even though my decision was unpopular, I heard later that the team appreciated how direct I was. They were open-minded as they welcomed their new manager, and he became both successful and well-respected. I would make that tough decision again in a heart beat.

The decisions we face as parents can be just as difficult and seem to be never ending. What pediatrician will we choose for our baby? Do we spend the extra money for organic food? Do we trust this caregiver? What school option is right for our child? Should we get a dog? Does our preteen need a cell phone? Is our 16-year old responsible enough to get her driver’s license? The list is endless.

Even with years of experience as both a leader and a parent, I still find it hard to make tough decisions because:

  • I may not have all the information to make the decision. So, I have to trust my instinct.
  • I may make the wrong decision. I don’t have a crystal ball that shows me the impact of my decisions. If and when I make a mistake, I own it. I take responsibility for the decision and how to handle the fallout.
  • I may be less liked. Tough decisions are rarely popular.

Given that making difficult decisions is a fact of life, I have found these best practices helpful:

  1. reflect my personal values. I do my best to be genuine and transparent, and to share my thoughts about the decision in a way that is respectful to those that will be impacted. I try to empathize with anyone who will be impacted by a decision.
  2. I often socialize a decision before it is final to gather more input and to give others time to deal with it. I explain why I need to make the decision, and how I am going to make the decision. I listen to what others have to say about it, and decide if I should reflect their input in my decision. I make note of concerns that I want to address when I explain what decision I have made.
  3. don’t procrastinate. Tough decisions rarely get easier to make over time. If there is no obvious deadline, I choose one and stick to it. I strive to give myself enough time to evaluate options and the impact on my business or family, but not to the extreme that I can’t make a timely decision.
  4. I am definitive. When I share the final decision, I don’t second guess myself. I make sure others know the decision is final. At home, where my husband and I share the decision making process, I use words like, “Dad and I have decided…”  At work, I say direct things like, “This decision is final.”

While I hope you and I never have to actually kill any sled dogs, we will continually face tough decisions at work and at home. What best practices do you follow? I’d love to hear them and learn from you.


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© 2012 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.