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!

–Karen

© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

(Photo credit: BigStock.com)

When was the last time you made someone feel smart?

drawing of a light bulb
Image courtesy of bplanet / FreeDigitalPhotos.net 

Are there some people you enjoy spending time with because they make you feel good about yourself? My husband and I know an older couple who have a knack for asking questions that make us feel like we are the most interesting people in the world. (Believe me, we’re not.) This couple refers to conversations we had years earlier, complimenting us on our achievements since then and encouraging us to stretch ourselves in new ways. Given their advanced years, I’m pretty sure they must keep a diary of their activities, and read it before seeing us to be able to remember what we’ve told them. Whether this is their secret or not, they make us feel great every time we visit them.

I thought of these friends when I read “7 Tips for Making Other People Feel Smart and Insightful,” a blog post by Gretchen Rubin. (Gretchen is the author of the best-selling books “Happiness Project” and “Happier at Home.”) She writes

We all want to get along well with other people, and one way to do this is to help people feel good about themselves. If you make a person feel smart and insightful, that person will enjoy your company. The point is not to be manipulative, but to help other people feel good about their contributions to a conversation.

She goes on to share some suggestions, including taking notes about what others are saying, referring back to comments that they made earlier in a conversation, and asking someone to finish a thought if they got side-tracked. Each allows you to show respect for their ideas and their experience, and that you are paying attention to what they’re saying.  My favorite is asking for advice and acting on it. As Gretchen points out, we all love to give advice, and we feel smart when someone seeks our counsel. We may even feel brilliant when that person follows our recommendations.

Not only will Gretchen Rubin’s tips help you make others feel good about themselves, they can also help drive engagement. Are you a leader who wants to increase  employee engagement with your company’s mission and future? Or, perhaps you are a parent who wants to  improve your teen’s engagement with your family? Think about making them feel good about the contributions they’re making to any conversation, and making them feel insightful when you seek their advice.

Professionally, I ask others for advice frequently. I’m a collaborative person, and I appreciate learning from others and including people in my decision making process. But, do I do this at home? Turns out not nearly enough.

When I asked my kids if I looked to them for advice, they both shook their heads “no.” Whether they realize it or not, I learn from them all the time. Yet, learning from someone is different than asking them for input. When we seek advice, we’re trying to sort something out; we’re gathering perspectives to help us understand a broader picture. By default, we reach out to people whose opinions we respect and trust, and this, in turn, makes them feel smart and insightful. With teens who are still developing a sense of who they are and the adults they will become, seeking their advice gives them the opportunity to practice sharing their ideas and to develop confidence in their opinions. Chances are, they’ll also teach us a thing or two.

So, I’m making a resolution to include my kids in my decision-making process more often. Please share your ideas, or your stories about when you’ve sought your kids’ advice. I’d love to hear from you.

–Karen

© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

The Ultimate Compliment

I once worked for a software company that was acquired by a larger company. In the first few months following the acquisition, I noticed something interesting. My new manager, who had been at the larger company for many years, started saying things in meetings along the lines of, “What I learned from Karen is the following…” What he then said resembled something I had shared with him, yet translated into the language of the new company. It sounded so much more impressive than what I had originally told him.

By rephrasing my words, this manager taught me to how to speak more effectively, using the right lingo and phrases to tie my thoughts into the strategic direction of the company, its culture and values, and its past successful initiatives. What a gift!

He also demonstrated a great deal of respect for me in front of my new colleagues. The simple phrase of “What I learned from Karen” made me feel great; who wouldn’t want to be recognized for teaching their more experienced manager something new. I think it was the ultimate compliment.

Since then, I’ve done my best to use that simple phrase in my leadership and parenting. For example, I recently exchanged email with someone I worked with a long time ago. In my email, I wrote,

One thing I learned from you is the importance of prioritization. At the time, you were a product manager who received more voice mail than you could possibly return. You told me how you strategically decided which messages to answer. To this day, I still think of you whenever I consciously decide not to do something. Thank you for inspiring and enabling me to do so!

As you might imagine, she was touched and wrote back,

I remember you absolutely and what a tremendous compliment you shared with your memory of me. I’m honored.

I learn from people around me every day, and I’m so grateful to be surrounded by talented family, friends, and professional contacts. I should thank them and compliment them more than I do. So, one of my resolutions for 2013 is to use the phrase, “What I learned from so-and-so is….” at least twice a week, either at home or at work. I’m hoping it will then become a life-long habit.

Have you made resolutions that apply to both parenting and leadership? I’d love to hear from you.

Wishing you all a happy and healthy 2013,

–Karen

© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

Bursting with Joy

I like speakers who give talks to parenting groups and to professional organizations. They have a message that’s worth spreading to both of these audiences, and they often highlight an intersection of leadership and parenting. They are my kind of people!

One such speaker is Dr. Jane McGonigal, a world-renowned creator of alternative reality games, a leading researcher in how gaming affects the brain, and an expert in how games can improve our lives. A few days ago, I had the opportunity to hear Jane speak at my husband’s company; last month, she spoke to parents at my children’s high school. Granted, my husband works for a gaming company, so Jane’s talk was highly relevant to him and his colleagues. And, although I’m not a game developer, I found Jane’s talk inspirational to me as a parent and as a business leader.

In describing the positive emotions that you can get from games, Jane mentioned naches, a yiddish word meaning pride or joy in something that someone else does. Often it is used to describe the pride that parents have for their children. But, that feeling of “bursting with joy” is not limited to parents. Jane discussed how kids can feel naches after they teach a parent how to play a video game, especially when the parent does well. Wow. How often do we see kids bursting with joy over their parents’ accomplishments? A rare occurrence, right? Yet, it is one that should be treasured, given the research that links positive emotions like naches to healthier and more vibrant lives.

Her talk made me think about my previous blog post on the importance of leaders being open to learning things from their employees. Leaders who look to learn from their staff can create a workplace where naches and other positive feelings can flourish. Personally, I’ve felt such a sense of pride many times during my career. I remember feeling it after my manager delivered a stunning demo that I helped him prepare him for. I felt it after hearing my manager use an analogy I had used the previous day. But, there were many times I should have felt it, but didn’t, primarily because my manager didn’t give me credit for my contributions.

Are there things a leader or a parent can do to help nurture a sense of pride after their employees or kids teach them something? Absolutely! Here’s what I try to do:

  • Acknowledge the contributions of others. Thank your kids or the employees who helped you learn, be prepared, or deliver something big. Write about it in your family’s holiday newsletter, mention it in a meeting or email, or thank the person individually.
  • Celebrate the accomplishment with those who helped you. Give high-five’s or hand shakes, take them out for a meal, or hold a small party.
  • Reward them. Depending on the size of the accomplishment, consider bonuses or gift cards, spending time with your kids doing something they enjoy, or rewarding them in other ways that are consistent with your family or company culture.
  • Learn from them again. Look for ways to learn more from that person or team. It’s the ultimate compliment.
  • Cultivate teaching opportunities. You can be a strong role model for learning from others, but you can also help connect the dots. If your child needs help with math homework, suggest that they ask an older sibling for help. If an employee is struggling with a new skill, recommend that they reach out to another person you know who does that skill really well. Within a team or a family, teaching and learning from each other develops strong bonds and encourages that sense of pride and joy.

What are your ideas for nurturing a sense of pride in other’s accomplishments, at home or at work? I’d like to hear from you!

–Karen

p.s. Curious about how to pronounce naches? The “ch” is pronounced gutturally; it’s not “ch” as in “cheese,” but rather “ch” as in “Bach,” the composer. (From About.com.)

© 2012 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

You learn something new every day

Photo of a school bus
Photo by Jared and Corin. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

I can still hear my high school English teacher, Mr. Steiner, saying “You learn something new every day.” He challenged us to stump him with questions about the news, trivia, and vocabulary.  I appreciated that he sought to regularly learn from his students, and that he was both honest and humble when he didn’t know something.

Last month, I attended a talk by Rosalind Wiseman, a parenting educator and author of several publications including Queen Bees and Wannabes. Rosalind spoke about how parents should take responsibility if they see an injustice such as bullying, and what to do if your child is a victim. She emphasized that if you don’t know how to handle an issue that your child brings to you, admit it. But, at the same time, turn it into an advantage. Since your child would most likely rather scrub toilets than talk to a counselor, use the fact that you don’t know how to handle the situation into an offer of “But, I know just the person who can help…”

I started thinking about how I’ve handled situations at work over the years when someone asked me a question I couldn’t answer. Sometimes these were technical questions, sometimes personnel questions. I wouldn’t ever just say “I don’t know” and leave it at that. I would put that person in touch with someone who I thought would know the answer. If it was something I thought I should know as well, I’d offer to send an email or attend a meeting with both people. I guess this is my equivalent of turning it into an advantage: I had the chance to learn from someone else as well as expand my network within my company.

When my kids need help with homework, I am embarrassed to admit how often I’m stumped. History questions are the worst. (Thank goodness for the internet!) But, I often learn something interesting and applicable as a leader…

When my daughter was in 9th grade, she asked me to read over an essay she was working on for English class. She specifically asked for feedback about its style, explaining that it had to follow the format of a persuasive essay. When I admitted to her that I didn’t know what to look for, she patiently walked me through a letter by Dr. Martin Luther King, pointing out the role of each paragraph. Not only was I then able to give her feedback on her piece, I learned something I would apply at work the very next day. An employee in one of my groups had written a statement about how he disagreed with a standards proposal published by another organization. His draft was antagonistic and not very compelling. I suggested that he rewrite his letter, following the format of a persuasive essay. I felt I was giving helpful, constructive feedback, and I remember being so grateful for what my daughter had taught me.

But, let’s face it. Admitting that you don’t know something is hard. After all, shouldn’t leaders and parents be all-knowing? To turn not knowing something into an advantage, I try to follow these best practices:

  1. I don’t pretend to know an answer when I don’t.
  2. I ask a lot of questions. Not only does this help me learn, I am also showing I’m interested and want to help.
  3. I offer at least one step to take to find the answer.
  4. I look to learn something from it.

Did you learn something new today? What have you learned from the children in your life that you’ve brought to the office? I’d love to hear from you!

–Karen

© 2012 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.