Women in career transition - mastering life changes (26 June 2012)

29 Jun 2012 10:58 | Anonymous

Life throws many career transitions and/or transformations at us, both expected and profoundly surprising. How can we navigate these transitions successfull?

This well-attended, energizing evening in the beautiful Dare to Glow loft in Geneva provides clues on how to face today’s tumultuous job market. To make mid-career decisions now more than ever, you need to clearly understand who you are, what your goals are and the path you want to take to reach those goals. When in transition, nothing should be left to chance; you need to have a strategy on how to evolve professionally, survive and succeed!

The keys are in our stories.

Moderator Hulya Kurt, Global Project Manager for Customer Experience, EMEA, of Thomson Reuters, ignites panelists’ personal stories to help us emulate fruitful strategies.

Carolina Rodriguez Barros, Founder and Director of Dare to Glow, inspires us to create a life that is aligned with our newly discovered self. Gently reminding us of the importance of having the right mindset, she puts the crises we face into context, “In Spain, withdrawing your life savings could be difficult…” She advises to stop and reflect when shaken by life; “difficult conditions are an opportunity to reinvent yourself – it is all too easy to get caught in an “activity trap” that gives the illusion of control yet achieves nothing. Instead, pause, and go back to what you fundamentally want to do”.

Jennifer Borrer is a boutique recruitment and executive search agency owner, and Strategy Coach at IMD; a leading business school. Through her lenses of a recruiter, a career strategy coach, as well as a seasoned professional who built her career on three continents, Jennifer shared her experience spanning 15 years in five steps, from newly minted finance graduate in Montreal to headhunter in Lausanne. Her career grew through natural, incremental, transitions, such as moving laterally between companies while keeping the same role; and several challenging – transformational – breakthroughs where “the key to success is being strategic enough to create new opportunity”. While the first change draws on transferable skills, the second entails strategically creating something that doesn’t yet exist. “Look for a gap in the market, create a value proposition – even if it means acquiring new skills”.

Violette Ruppanner, Partner at Strategos SA; Founder and Director at Azay Management & Advisory, has lived on three different continents, worked in Asian, American and Swiss cultures, and is President of OWIT Lake Geneva, a highly visible non-profit association in the international community of Lac Leman. Her magic ingredients are networking and gaining support. She recounts earning one of her earliest jobs in Vietnam, by taking advantage of an informal event provided by her company, to chat with the Vice President and, upon hearing of the opening – blurted “If you are looking for someone – I’m ready!”, Violette affirms, “SAY what you want; speak up, show you are available and interested – and you might just be at the right place, at the right time”. Once established, cherish your relations: Violette adapted her style to better relate to her bosses’ needs for recognition.

Men, she believes, network better as they are provided enabling contexts, such as military service, and consider networking an integral part of their jobs. Women should emulate them and strategically build ‘networking’ into their work plan or job search. Everyone has a network: family, alumni groups, acquaintances, etc. When meeting people “never discount yourself with the usual boring response of ‘I’m not looking now’, ‘I’m not in a job right now’ or ‘I’m a housewife’. Remember all the exciting things you do – even if it’s not for money – such as volunteering or caring for your family. Bring your business cards, knowledge of what you can offer; passions, and stories about the fun activities you do, and don’t be shy to talk: you will bring value to somebody. The key is to combine your skills with your network. Find the right connections, share yours. Take your stories and business cards to your network. Be authentic, balance give and take, and accept help graciously”.

“Networking is invaluable at every stage in your career; for ideas, connections, and help. It helps you fall back on your feet in difficult times. And remember: only the traces of love we leave in people’s hearts will stay after we depart this world”

Pamela Grant, Managing Partner of Performance Development Partners’ Geneva office, and Master Coach specializing in career transitions, believes your ideal career can often be found by going back to your roots (at age 5, she was praised for helping her classmates). Pamela’s 16 year career at the World Wildlife Fund in seven different jobs shows the importance of constantly being marketable. There are no jobs for life now, and this makes life more interesting. She got all her jobs through network introductions and the kindness and support of people who believed in her; even if she didn’t yet have the skills; she could acquire them. It is about having the courage to accept challenges and move beyond your comfort zone. Not much of her career was planned, but having the skills, motivation and ability to fit with a company was inestimable. For example, her first manager’s kindness opened her way to the World Wildlife Fund. Seeing opportunities there for improvements, she made suggestions which she was often asked to implement. Her most daunting promotion was being asked to become head of Human Resources. Despite her great fear, as she had zero experience (and 30 minutes to make up her mind), she accepted. Attuned to the difficulties of managing people – especially worldwide – she wisely asked for, and received, the training necessary for her credibility in this role.

Pamela’s 4-point philosophy is:
  1. We need people in our lives – help others and hopefully it will come back. We all have an amazing story and can learn something from everyone who crosses our path.
  2. Create opportunities – for your company and yourself.
  3. Work on yourself – your resources and values; work in a job you believe in.
  4. Dare take on the job – even if you don’t have the skills, but just the motivation and resources to succeed.
“Step out of your comfort zone! If you prepare, opportunity will come. Successful people are people with options.”

Mind the traps

Several barriers hinder transitions. The first is mental. Carolina warns “Don’t fall into the ‘identity trap’. You are not just your university degree: look at your whole self; your physical, intellectual, emotional strengths, and continue positive activities like attending events and keeping fit. Don’t give up just because you don’t have a job anymore”. She gently reminds us that “transition is the best teacher; we learn from life, not books”.

“The best way to succeed is to dare to glow, be unique, be yourself – network, build relations, tell your story, know who you are. Knowing your story helps you connect from a different place”.

“Choose to lead the change in your life rather than push through mindlessly. Once you aim right, answers will be found in the doing....”

Unfortunately, fearing change and loss of control, we often fall into the frantic ‘doing’ mode… Instead; pause and reconnect with who you are… who can I become next? Analyze what’s missing in your life, your values.

Don’t feel guilty networking or claim you have no time; give yourself time. We don’t have men’s physical strength or network – but women have singular abilities, such as sharing wisdom from an authentic place without fear of judgment.

Pamela adds that we need to make ourselves visible and ask for the recognition we deserve, and convince our partners to support us. Women often say that they would like to stop/start working but ‘my husband doesn’t want me to’. The panel agrees that the support of their significant others has been key to their success, while Carolina notes that sometimes we refuse support out of a misplaced need for self-sufficiency. “Women: bear to share your workload and responsibilities.”

Impress your headhunter

Jennifer Borrer provides first-hand insight into the mind of a headhunter. Contrary to widespread misconceptions; and although in practice boundaries can blur, headhunters are not career coaches or outplacement agencies (Jennifer uses her job strategy coaching skills for IMD career services, but not as a recruiter). Never assume – like many do – that they will magically “read your mind” and know what’s right for you.

They depend on the jobs their clients mandate them and seek the best fit for their client’s needs in terms of skills, behavioral competencies, cultural fit, and shared values. It is not necessarily about finding an ‘exact’ match by ticking boxes in a job description, but rather knowing the client’s and candidate’s needs deeply.

Thus, aim to let them know EXACTLY where you add value. What specifically are you looking for in your next role/company? Be efficient, on time: have CV, certificates and references ready. Be helpful: provide that list of ideal jobs or companies. Provide success stories of past transitions, ask questions. Know your limits and put your cards on the table. One of Jennifer’s best candidates was a CEO who realized his limits and sat down with her to tailor his job to keep parts he loved and eliminate the rest. She knew exactly how to help him.

“Your headhunter is your ally and representative in the marketplace and needs to be fluent in knowing your qualifications, skills, and motivations. So be effective, honest, be yourself and know who you are” – Jennifer Borrer
Finally, in assessing your chosen path, recruiters will look at your potential-to-risk ratio in three areas: are you changing your title, industry or geography? Changing three is the riskiest, two is medium risk and one is doable – it all depends on the industry. You may consider accepting 2-3 smaller steps up the ladder towards your ideal goal to lessen the perceived risk.

Too old? How do I transition as an older woman?

Pamela draws on her experience as a career coach, who has set up the 50+ Autrement network at the Career Women’s Forum. “Sadly, the reality for Geneva is that the age limit is now 35 in some cases for women, and 45 for men. The only way to confront this is through your own attitude; don’t be afraid you will never get a job again: be a fighter! Companies are looking for ‘25 year olds with 25 years of experience’ – you will get hired for your skills, motivation and if you fit. You have the first two, so prove you fit”. An inspiring example is that of a 61 year old who joined a company as personal assistant and rapidly became Vice President, as the value she brings matters more than her age.

While not belittling the challenges, Pamela states the only way to beat discrimination is to fight back – for example, by joining a movement such as 50+ Autrement, which helps companies look at people differently, and see older people’s unique added value. “Fight, believe in yourself and find the right fit”, she concludes.

“The value you provide matters more than your age”

Remove your age from your CV if you believe it’s a barrier, Jennifer adds. Shifting through hundreds of CVs, recruiters process by elimination. Remove reasons for them to eliminate you! Your goal: get face to face. Then, as Carolina says, you can showcase your unique selling proposition: “Embrace and accept your uniqueness and show up as your own brand – which is the outer expression of your inner skills. Our visual impression, voice, and how we enter a room counts. Get the visual part of communication right – know how to power dress, get out of your comfort zone, and improve!”

Shattering the glass in big organizations; on being a ‘superwoman’ or How do women market themselves in big organizations, what does it take to succeed?

Hulya notes that her large company has many highly skilled women, who are never denied a job they want. They just don’t dare apply for senior jobs. They fear they can’t maintain their life-work balance, and wish to stay on the safe side.

Pamela adds that one of the unique women she knows who made it to the very top, a highly competent specialist in a rare field, complains it is very, very, lonely there, and being the only woman prompted her to resign. Another super woman declined the presidency of a huge local company, to take a lesser role which allows her to care for her handicapped husband and two kids. It takes impressive skills to manage a family, a high powered job and travel. Very few women are prepared for the huge cost; such as high divorce rates. Societal values need to change. At the moment, men rely on women to get ahead in their careers, yet women find less of that same support. Violette concurs that among her role models was the current State Secretary, whom she believed reached that position because she had a supportive husband. She says, “There are always trade-offs and the choice is ours, we can sometimes control more than we believe. Letting go of the need to control everything can make it easier – trust yourself and know your limits. Moments of doubt are normal”.

“A supportive partner is key”, says Jennifer, “and don’t be afraid to seize opportunities”. In one of her transitions she was terrified as she knew nothing about human resources, but took the job and made it happen.

Carolina adds, “it’s important not to self-excuse because we believe in a ‘glass ceiling’. Reframe, believe it is possible to break through”.

Succeed in a male-dominated environment

Responding to remarks that Switzerland is an attractive yet male-dominated environment compared with North America, with many women weary of trying to break through, especially when ‘45 with 2 children’… Pamela responds there is no real answer, but there are female-friendly jobs, for example in human resources. She remembers insisting on hiring a woman when a company blatantly disregarded the CVs she proposed, favouring male ones. “Go for companies that value diversity, say “damn it, we’re worth it” and remember we offer different things at different ages. We are all part of the solution – stand up for what’s right”.

Recruiters often have no prejudice, adds Jennifer, but few women apply for director roles.

An audience member quips that she faces the opposite challenge: she is a single, over-45 high flier, who now welcomes a simpler life. In her experience, companies do promote women, provide coaching etc, but a top job can be lonely and friendless. Women tend to have more empathy than men, which means these competitive contexts are hard ball for women. She notes wistfully that men are raised to compete, then drink together at the pub. Men seem relaxed about competition, not her.

Carolina adds, “This means there is space for women to find solutions. Be careful how you frame the issue, if you view progression as a “fight” it will remain a fight. It is a shame that some women who get senior positions become louder, meaner, less compassionate, as they have had to fight their way up by emulating men. Why not go forth the way you are, with confident self-assurance instead?”

Is there a magic potion to enhance self-confidence?

Pamela wants us to laugh – it’s contagious. Pretend you are confident, if you believe it, everyone else will. Even if you are terrified; it’s about how you appear externally. But beware the fine line between bluff and blatant lie, confidence and arrogance/pretentiousness that is not to be crossed: remain authentic. Just be confident and surround yourself with positive people. Violette agrees that it is about finding the right balance between authenticity and pretense/play, and taking an improvisation course can pay enormous dividends as it helps you with your body language and enhances your credibility.

Carolina concludes by sharing an approach for generating self-confidence. “You know how to do it. Be clear about who you are, get new experiences/skills and remember to build on your past successes”. Self-mastery is being aware of how thoughts trigger emotions, which in turn trigger actions, with the resulting feedback flowing back into our belief system. So watch your thoughts positive and negative, and see how changing your thoughts improves your emotions and then how you show up differently.

As for their take-away advice: Pam says “trust people more quickly” and Carolina concurs, “Listen to yourself and trust people and life in general, there’s a reason for everything.” Jennifer and Violette emphasizes the importance of stopping the busyness to take time to reflect – then act to break down elephantine tasks bit by bit to achieve our desired success!
Author: Katia Kerswell


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