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Returning to Work After a Long Hiatus

As a follow-on to our last post about age discrimination, I decided to take on a common scenario that many people in our industry face: How do you get back in once you’ve decided to leave advertising? Your reasons could be as diverse as taking time to travel or raise a family, maybe you launched your own business or consultancy, went back to school, pursued a career in another field, etc. Whatever your reason, you can be certain your prospective employer wants to know if you were discontent with the industry and if you’ll leave again. Right or wrong, you’re riskier than a candidate that has worked steadily through the ranks without a break.

In this post, we’ll talk about some of the perceptions and concerns you’ll need to address, plus offer advice for setting realistic expectations.

Have your story down.

First and foremost, your prospective employer needs to hear a concise, reasonable and airtight rendition of your decision to leave adverting AND your reasons for wanting to return. An executive summary; a positioning narrative.

Most modern-day companies appreciate the desire to take a travel sabbatical or raise young kids. In these situations, they’re often listening for clues about your work ethic and commitment to the rigors of their work day. If you left to pursue other career interests – whether starting your own business or taking a job in another field – you need to demonstrate that you’ve thought thru your next move and have sincere interest in returning to agency life.

Hint: While life or financial circumstances may be the prevailing reason for your return, this won’t win confidence with employers. Nobody wants to hire someone who is just going thru the motions until something better comes along.

Be honest about what you did during your hiatus.

“Consulting” has taken on the same wink wink connotation as “working from home.” It could mean you have a legitimate 40+hr work week, consistent pipeline of projects and clients, maybe even staff. But since others have used the term to describe answering emails from the beach in Phuket, well, you have to specific about your accomplishments. Quantify wherever possible. No need to embellish. If you decided to take some time off and could afford to do so, there’s nothing wrong with that. I personally love to hear about outside interests or hobbies that candidates decided to pursue.

Make it a gripping story. There’s substance and there’s spin, and both contribute to making a strong first impression.

Demonstrate you know what they’re looking for.

When you’re on your own, you get to do things your way. When you work in an office with others, it’s a marriage. There’s a give-and-take that inevitably involves some compromise. I’ve worked with many, many candidates that have zero travel tolerance, or want to leave at 5:15 everyday, and listen, I totally get it. I enjoy my independence too, but these “requirements” really impact your chances of getting hired or being promoted.

Instead of putting your needs first, think about their ideal candidate attributes. What will the job require? What are its success metrics? For example, if the role calls for somebody to lead and mentor a large, local team, it’s hard to imagine this can be done remotely. Decide what you can reasonably accommodate, and if you’re willing to commit (long-term!) to these requirements. It’s possible too, that you’ll be able to renegotiate these terms once you’ve proven yourself.

Describe relevant or transferable skills.

You can’t ask recruiters or hiring managers to work too hard to connect your most recent experience to the current job requirements. Be sure to represent where you last left off in advertising. This will be where they look first to get a reasonable sense of level and contributions. Then, be specific about skills you developed since and what you accomplished: Built a web site and developed search and social strategies for your jewelry business, sourced and set up a supply chain for importing pocket squares, launched a travel blog that’s been recognized as a go-to resource. Whatever you do, be ready to describe what you learned and how it will help you in your next role.

Be willing to consider different titles and levels.

This is tough on the ego, but even if you launched and run a successful business, it’s plausible you missed out on some of the experience that your employer is looking for. For example, you may not have managed a large team, or worked on the volume of projects that will become your daily reality. If I were to shutter Nadexa Group tomorrow (no plans to!) and head into a corporate recruiting, I would expect to field questions about the diversity and volume of searches I worked on, as well as my leadership experience. I’d be up against candidates coming from other corporate recruiting environments. While I was developing clients, they were managing teams. If the role I’m pursuing favors management skills, I may need to consider entering at a lower level until I can prove myself.

Focus on getting your foot in the door, then make yourself invaluable.

Present yourself like you’ve never left. 

I can tell when someone’s out of touch. They’re not aware of industry news and trends. They’re not as “juiced up” or connected as colleagues that have been reporting to an office everyday. This is why it’s critically important to be in the water versus standing on the beach. It’s tough to swim from the beach! Attend industry events and network, listen to what’s top of mind, learn the buzzwords, and develop a perspective about the issues shaping our industry.

Every conversation and interview presents an opportunity to gather intel and rehearse your pitch. Watch and listen for cues that indicate your ideas resonate and refine anything that produces confusion or doubt.

Start with people who know you.

After taking a few years off to raise her infant twins, my friend spent 4 months pounding the pavement, sending out resumes and taking exploratory meetings in hopes of finding a job that offered flexibility and work/life balance. Finally, a colleague suggested she return to her old employer, where she was a recognized rockstar. She was quickly awarded a consulting gig for someone on maternity leave. This role lead to several more lengthy assignments as word about her spread to new departments. She’s been there 9 years and still going strong.

In summary, there’s a difference between saying goodbye and hello. Focus on hello. Forget feeling defeated or shy or uncertain. Figure out what you can get excited about and pursue that. Curiosity and optimism are your biggest allies. Start there and the rest will fall into place.


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